The adventures of a Neanderthal in the 21st Century
The true story of William McGuire,
an innocent in an age of cynicism,
and a stranger in a strange land,
who must find his own way in Homo sapiens society,
as told by himself.
I am William McGuire. I would say, ‘Call me Bill,’ in the vein of Mr. Melville and his Ishmael, but it would make a worse joke of all this from the start. It is enough that my life has already been made into a farce.
I am going to tell some things you should not know. Private matters really. But I am going to tell you what I can of these things because they are already a part of what many might think they know, and most of that is untrue. Simply, this is the story of what has actually happened. It’s a history that is not so complicated, in the end. And this is an effort to unmake that joke.
Please forgive the gaps. My notes have never been kept faithfully. What I offer here are those parts I think relevant. But to appreciate what I want to tell you now, I believe you should learn all of what follows, just as I did. There is at least some order to that process. I make no pretense of being a reporter.
My father, as it were, is Edward H. McGuire, a Professor of Microbiology at Harvard University, Emeritus. My mother, Mary Eleanor Rice, was for many years a Professor of Linguistics at MIT. Myself? I am nothing of the sort. I did graduate from Boston University with a degree in history, but only just barely and after seven years. I dropped out twice along the way. You may have seen something about me in the news on a few occasions before. But none of that matters now.
A little more than a year ago, I received a call from my mother. It was early in the morning and I work late so I was groggy. She wanted to see me. Her tone was grave. I didn’t argue. She had been in remission from breast cancer for two years, but that was after two previous bouts, and I had a sense of what she wanted to say.
She was never over-weight, even in her prime, but she looked so horribly thin when she opened the door. I suppose that recognition was on my face. She pursed her lips just a little, in a ghost of the expressions of disapproval she used to direct at me nearly every day. She was wearing a long cream-white robe that revealed the knobs of her shoulder bones and a blue scarf that, without the familiar coal-black hair beneath, made her head look very small. She had been slightly stooped for years, due to osteoporosis I think, from her first cancer treatments. I bent and kissed her on the cheek, but she didn’t really move to offer the usual feigned kiss in return. Either she was already too weary to make the effort, or her mind was on what she was going to talk to me about. She always had that kind of focus. Everything else around her became secondary to what was on her brain.
She might have been brilliant. I don’t know. I don’t really understand the work she did in linguistics. The semiotics as much as the semantics. She has her name on a couple of texts concerning the evolutionary fertilization of biolinguistics by the algorithms of computer languages. Artificial languages seem pointless to me when we cannot communicate in the languages we have. No matter, I suppose.
She stepped aside like I was a visiting repairman and pointed to the couch.
It was a very nice apartment by some standards. Bright. Mostly off-white. Like such extra care facilities always are. Just the one bedroom, living room and kitchen. Her favorite photographs by Maurice Salvo were on the wall. Enlarged in black and white, they made the room feel even colder than it actually was. Most of her books were already gone. Given away. Only the one shelf behind her desk gave hint of what work had occupied her life.
She had never been one for small talk. She started right in even before she sat in the chair by her desk.
She spoke slowly, almost carefully, “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Is it about your health?”
“Two things, actually . . . No, I think you know about my health. That’s a foregone conclusion, isn’t it? . . . No, it’s about you. Things you should know about.”
Always a bad host, she would have forgotten to offer me something to drink in any case, but she was licking her lips so I spoke up.
“Can I get you something? Anything?”
“No . . . Yes. There is a glass of mineral water on the counter. You can get me that. There isn’t much else, I’m afraid. I’ve been ordering from the service lately. I don’t have the energy to cook. No! As a matter of fact, there’s half a bottle of scotch I bought the last time I found out I was in remission. There’s that, if you’d like it.”
I brought her the water. She was never one to drink beer in any case, so I didn’t look in the fridge and I poured myself a couple ounces of scotch in a wine glass — the only glass I saw in the cupboard — and sat down again on the couch.
“So, tell me what I should know about myself.”
A flinch of an eyebrow. “Everything.”
I said, “We can agree on that, at least. But I haven’t been doing so well with that project on my own.”
“It may not be your fault.”
“Maybe. But I’m not one for the blame game. You and Father gave me a lot of advantages in life. I chose my own road. I have to live with it.”
She pursed her lips. The criticism implied in my words was ignored.
“I mean that you might have issues you do not understand.”
Now, at that instant, my thinking stopped cold. Over the years, there has always been some undercurrent of matters they would not speak to me about. I had formed my own ideas long before, of course.
Some of my first memories were of a small room at MIT, no more than a booth, with no one else and no sound, just the lights and the large colorful buttons, and my mother’s voice coming from somewhere I couldn’t see. I hated it. I know it was MIT because I remember the walk to the building along the river, holding Mother’s hand.
By the time I was fourteen, I was sure I was adopted.
About that same time, I managed to find a copy of my birth certificate. I think it was in Mother’s personal file in her closet. My mother had given birth to me by cesarean section at Brigham’s Hospital. There was no doubt about that. And my father’s name was listed right there on the proper line following hers. But things had been said in strange ways that always seemed to carry another load of mischief, if you know what I mean. Especially when my parents argued.
After they divorced, all that stopped and I had not really thought about it for years.
There were other matters to concern me then. But you have to understand. I was taller than my father by the time I was fourteen. I was twice his weight by the time I was in college. I am not particularly fat. I try to stay in shape. I work at it. If nothing else, out of self-preservation. After I won the wrestling championship my freshman year at BU, there seemed to be something of a sport around town in finding fellows to challenge me. Big guys just make easy targets.
Simply put, I don’t look like either of my parents.
I suppose she was probably watching my face. She stopped and looked at me with what passes for pity in her own way. The way she would look at a hungry dog, really. She might take away a totally incorrect conclusion, but she is a good observer. That is the scientist in her, I suppose. After jamming up altogether, my own thoughts were suddenly racing. I knew just then that I was going to learn about the one thing that had always lurked at the back of my mind. Why was I different?
She sighed. That weariness of sound was her habit long before she became ill. “Maybe three things, then. The first is that I am dying. The medical review board has denied my request for additional treatment for the cancer.”
What should be said? “I’m sorry. Knowing you, I’m sure you’ve tried everything you can.”
She was shaking her head, as if to say this was not the matter of importance. “Yes. I believe so. Secondly, you should know that you are not my child. Not actually.”
I did not say anything to that. I think I just released my own lungful of breath — a lifetime of breath held back, waiting.
“You see, it was just an experiment, to start. You have to understand. Twenty-eight years ago, your father and I were having an affair. He was already a full professor at Harvard then, and married. I hadn’t gotten tenure yet at MIT. It was your father’s idea that we should try an experiment and I was foolish enough to go along.” She paused. I supposed to reflect on the event. “I believe his wife had already refused. He denied that, so it must be true . . . In any case, I agreed to become a surrogate — to carry a child that your father — more your step-father, actually — had essentially invented in his lab.”
She had run right to the point. No elaboration. No niceties or detail that might have taken the edges off. No. Not my mother. Right to the point.
“I was an experiment.”
“Essentially. Your father knew what he was doing. For him it was not an experiment. It was just a procedure. The experiment was in the result. He thought that would come later.”
“Just to see.”
“To play with a human life?”
“It was science. We just wanted to know.”
“And you are telling me this now? You’re dying, and this is your confession? That you’ve played with a human life? With my life?”
“Well, . . . More than one. We aborted the first. I got cold feet . . . I’ve always had cold feet, you know. It’s especially terrible now . . . But we tried again. Edward was so passionate about it. You have to understand. And I was in love. And curious too. He agreed to get a divorce and marry me if I would agree to have the child. So you were actually a love child! Don’t you see?”
The subject of love seemed totally inappropriate to me just then.
“Actually, I don’t. If it wasn’t for Aunt Jane, I might never have known what love was.”
That got her out of her own planned course. She reacted abruptly then. “Hah! Jane Dunne. That stupid woman! She was hired to care for you. Just a nanny! It’s always bothered me that you call her ‘Aunt.’ She didn’t really care about you. It was a paycheck. That and the fact that your father wanted to get her in bed, at least once, I believe.”
I don’t think he ever accomplished that. I am thankful that Jane held him off as long as she did. He would have fired her for good as soon as he accomplished his goal. That’s the way Father is. Jane had been my real mother, from the time I was two until I was fourteen.
“You’re wrong about that. But then, it looks like you were wrong about a lot of things.”
“No! We were right! Your father was right. The experiment worked! We proved that it could be done! Successfully. You were born a healthy baby. You are a healthy intelligent human being!”
What do you say to such blindness?
“That’s not science. It is done every day. The old fashioned way. A million times a day, all over the world.”
“But in your case, it is.”
“Because . . . Because you are not of the same sub-species as everyone else.”
This was not what I expected, even in the few moments after realizing what they had done. I cannot even tell you what thought was in my brain at the instant she said ‘sub-species.’ Whatever it was, it was blown away.
“What are you talking about?”
“What about my DNA?”
I can hear my voice now. Like it was something overheard in another room. My own mind was that far away.
What could I have said? I probably didn’t breathe for over a minute. It’s scary how I can sometimes forget to breathe. She shook her head, shrugged the knobs on those thin shoulders, and shook her head again. She waited for me to say something. And I did finally speak.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me before? Didn’t you ever think something like this would matter to me? Didn’t you tell anyone else? Ever?”
“No! Not unless your father did. Maybe he told one of his young women in the biology department that he was giving hands-on lessons to.”
No other question seemed more important.
“Because it was the challenge of the moment. Someone was going to do it first. Why not us?”
“No. I meant why did you keep it a secret?”
“Because it was illegal. Don’t you understand? There were laws against such things. There still are. It would have ruined both of our careers if it was ever known.”
“Then why do it?”
“It was just the timing. You see, it was not actually illegal when we started. Just discouraged. And your father couldn’t believe they would stop him once it was done. He wanted to be the first. He wanted that feather in his bonnet. But come down to it, it was a matter of federal funding for the University. They would have cut off the entire biology department. Hundreds of millions of dollars.”
She shrugged again.
“Now it doesn’t matter.”
“To you. It doesn’t matter to you. It’s still all about you. And Father. Still! The ethics of what you did doesn’t matter to you even today!”
She squinted at me in pained patience, the way she always did to students too slow on the uptake.
“It’s not the same now. The labs are so poorly operated at Harvard that they couldn’t even attempt it now. It’s all pro-forma. The government tells us what they want to hear and we provide the evidence. There is no excellence anymore. But then — Then! There was still competition! There was a lab in Zurich that was already working with a similar concept. And another at the University of Amsterdam. The Dutch had most of the body of the child found frozen in that glacier in the Caucasus. It was in the papers then. Your father had already purchased viable material from another find — from the Russians, he said. And we never really knew what the Chinese were doing, but I believe it was with something they uncovered in Tibet.” She shrugged. “Whatever it was, it didn’t come to anything.” She shook her head again as if all of that should be obvious. “Then there was the team at the University of Leeds. Rumor had it they finally brought a fetus to term. So you see, when we started, it was a whole new field . . . And then the politics changed. Overnight! The U.N. got involved. There were stories in the papers with an ‘artist’s conception of the face of the frozen child.’ Congress attached a measure to an appropriation bill. And just like that, it was against the law. All that work was suddenly forbidden . . .Your father couldn’t just throw it away. It was years of research. He was working on some way around it, but that never happened. So we did it in secret. It was our secret.” A smile flinched at her wan cheeks. “I remember we were sitting on the stone wall down at the Charles River late one night. We’d been drinking wine. We were both giggling and fooling around. Your father was talking about winning the Nobel Prize. And I said, what about me? What do I get? He said, ‘You get to be the mother of the Nobel Prize!’ Well, I jumped right up to object to that, but I slipped and fell in. I almost drowned. Your father jumped in to save me — to save his experiment, actually, but he was useless. An MIT security guard pulled me out. I was in the hospital when they told me that I was pregnant. I didn’t even know . . . So we married. And we kept our experiment a secret. Surely, the politics would change again, we thought. Then we heard that the Dutch government had destroyed the fetus at UVA. That would have happened to us, you understand. You would never have been born!”
That was a thought that had some merit.
If he could, my father would have killed me.
He keeps an office at the old Natural History building on the Harvard campus, but he hasn’t taught a course in years. I called first to make sure he was there. He wasn’t interested in talking about Mother, but I told him there was something he would want to know. He said if I got there before noon, he would take me to lunch in the faculty dining room. They do not serve alcoholic beverages, but a free lunch is always in order, even without a beer. Besides that, a public place seemed perfect for the occasion. He likes to raise his voice, but he’s very conscious of what other people think.
He looked as fit as ever. He keeps his hair shorter now that it’s gray. He hasn’t played handball since his Achilles went, but he rides a bike and swims.
He started his usual patter over the salad bar.
“What are you doing now, Billy?”
“I’m a bouncer.”
“I’m a bouncer at a nightclub. It pays the bills.”
The disdain barely flickered in one eyebrow.
“You know, I was hoping for more from you. What about all those history courses.”
“They helped. They taught me that I don’t want to have anything to do with teaching history. It’s all a bloody mess.”
I filled my plate with a bit more protein, mostly steak and potatoes, and sat down. I couldn’t manage any small talk. I went right to the facts that I knew. Always the good poker player, Father took my initial declarations concerning what Mother had said as if I were talking about the weather.
With his chin extended over a mixed fruit salad to close the space between us, he told me “She’s lying, Billy. She’s always had a problem with the truth.”
I showed him the letter he gave her twenty-nine years ago when she agreed to go forward with the ‘experiment.’ Actually, I showed him a copy, because he did exactly what I thought he would do. He tried to destroy the evidence by wadding it up in the palm of his hand. And then he smiled.
He has always been a charming fellow, if you did not know him.
He took a bite of the fruit salad and said, “If I could, I would have smothered you twenty-eight years ago. Your mother stopped me. You owe her that much.”
I admitted another thought, “I’m indebted to both of you, really. I don’t regret being alive, even if things aren’t the way I want them to be. But what you did was wrong.”
He ignored my judgment with another mouthful of fruit and spoke before he’d swallowed.
“I looked for that damned letter a hundred times. I wonder where she hid it?”
“She told me to tell you. It was in the frame behind your degree from Stanford.”
“Damn! I should have thought of that. She was the one who had it framed.”
Another admission came to mind. “And I don’t even know why I’m here now. You’re the one person I should never want to lay eyes on again.”
“Hemph! Just the perversity of human nature, my boy. You want to see the defendant grovel. But that’s not likely, now is it? You know me better than that . . . Is she going to die soon?”
“Well, at least that’ll be over with.”
“You have no pity.” It was not actually a question but a statement. He took it the other way.
“Pity? She’s lived a very comfortable life. Pity? What for? I was a ticket to a permanent position at MIT. She got it. Now she’s dying and she wants to stick it to me, one last time.”
“You are a very cold man.”
“No. Practical. My real regret is that I had one chance at fame and immortality. But it passed me by.”
“And it never occurred to you to think about me, did it?”
“You? You weren’t even supposed to exist. You were an ancient accident. And then an experiment. It worked. And then suddenly the plan fell apart. Some stupid self-serving idiot politician got himself elected by making what we were doing against the law.”
“Aren’t you concerned at all about the right or wrong of what you did?”
“Science is not about right and wrong. Science is about knowledge. To make knowledge illegal, that’s wrong.”
“My life means nothing?”
“That you exist. Yes. But you as a person? No. No more than the few billion other chunks of blood and bone-filled flesh walking around out there . . . Don’t look so shocked. You’re old enough to know better. You of all people should know better now. We are the species that has only dominated the earth for a mere thirty thousand years or so. What about your ancestors? The Neanderthal were here for two hundred thousand! Where are they now? Barely a notch on the archeological scale. Where is their god? Where are their cares and worries? What of the million moments of final horror in their lives as they were devoured by some creature of the night? What does it mean that you exist? Except for the knowledge that it can be done — nothing!”
I didn’t have a lot to say after that. At least I managed to eat my free lunch as he attempted to explain himself.
It is easy to see my father as the villain in all this. He is, after all, responsible for what he did. But I have often believed he should be judged as part of his time and place.
Historically speaking, you cannot go back and fairly convict anyone by standards which were not theirs to begin with. This is not a matter of subjective values. On the contrary, it is the opposite. The values of today are not correct just because they are ours. They must stand on their own. And though I believe it’s correct to harshly judge the Roman slave owner, it is not with the sharper edge I would use against the plantation owner in the South of a hundred and fifty years ago. My father caused all of these things that concern me here to happen. But it was certainly within the academic pay-to-play milieu of his moment. He was not alone in his actions. My mother was certainly his accomplice. And, as you will see, there were others.
In 2020, my father was still a young man, but already beyond that period of brilliance that burns so brightly for some in their first years. As his obligations at the university grew, absorbing more and more of his time, he would have been looking for that project which would set him apart. Homo Neanderthalensis must have seemed like ripe fruit to an eager hand.
As easily as he tells lies to himself or others, you would have to see his face at the moment of the telling to understand how persuasive he can be.
I said, “I’m just a clone then.”
“No!” His face went wild first with irritation at my statement and then with the enthusiasm over what he had done, “I know this is not your field, but try to understand. A clone is just a copy. A copy of a really big file, but just an exact duplicate copy of the DNA of whatever you’ve got. You are not a copy of anything! You are a recreation of something that might have been. The Swiss–they tried the copy-thing until they were blue in the face. They had some fellow who’d fallen into a crack up in the Alps. Every clone was a failure. Why? Because it’s not clock-making. It is life that you’re making! Every clone they made was a damned cuckoo clock. Why? Because all life dies. All viable life must die. Your mother is dying. I’ll die — We must! It’s the recreation that matters. You can’t just copy. And after we’re dead and no longer able to recreate ourselves cell by cell, our DNA disintegrates over time. The x-rays alone will accomplish that. The Swiss kept trying to repair the damage. A needle in a thousand haystacks multiplied ten thousand times! Before they’d clean up one, another occurred. But if you recreate, that’s the key. And you need material from a woman to start with. An X and a Y. An X alone won’t do. This is not parthenogenesis! This is fertilization. Not the old fashioned way, I’ll grant you, but not far from it! I found the way to remake all the parts from the tissue of that unfortunate boy and bring them together in the womb of a living woman. Your mother. We did it on a computer first, and then, we did it!”
“You are God . . .”
“No. Now don’t get carried away. I’m pretty good, but God I’m not.”
He was that serious. He could not hear the sarcasm in my voice.
He ate for a moment, grunting his private thoughts at his salad, then looked up. “No. As far as I’m concerned, the experiment is still on-going. I’ve been keeping notes, you understand. When my race is run, all of it will be in the hands of people who can see to it that it’s published. I may not get the glory while I’m alive, but I’ll get it in the end. I can at least rest assured of that. And there are things still to be learned.” His voice dropped dramatically. “Why do you really think we didn’t smother you a long time ago? There are things to learn. We have already established that the Homo neanderthalensis mind is as good as the Homo sapiens. Maybe better. But one example offers insufficient data to draw any larger conclusion than that you as an individual are capable. And, to my mind, I’m certain you are physically superior. But are there dark secrets still lurking in your genes?” He chewed at a leaf of lettuce too large for his mouth. “For instance, will you be dying a little earlier? There is a theory that your life span is half that of sapiens. That might even have been your disadvantage in the contest thirty thousand years ago. And can you reproduce? That’s a question I would love to know the answer to. You’ve got the juice, but will it do what it’s supposed to.” He smiled in the way he often did when referring to women. “You know, there is a female . . . Yes. The Dutch. Those tricky Dutchmen. They said they had aborted the fetus they brought to term. That was a lie. I have made inquiries. I’ve kept my ears open. And I can tell you. I’m certain of it. And maybe another at the University at Chengdu. Maybe . . .”
I got up. I shouldn’t have. I should have stayed and heard more of what he knew. He was too happy spilling his secrets to someone he did not have to worry about. But the disgust had risen as a gorge in my throat and I had to stand.
He said, “Sit down, Billy. You’re smart enough to handle all this. Don’t play games with me.”
“Life is not a game.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Look at history. The same damned thing over and over. You’d think we’d learn. But no. Just like baseball. If we get a hit one time out of three, we think we are winners.”
“That’s not the history I read. The history I read was the struggle to get out from under the whims of people like you.”
“Ha! That’s a selective reading, to be sure. But however you read it, you are a part of history now. Whether you like it or not.”
“I think not. I think now my job in life may be to avoid history altogether.”
“That’s not in the cards, my boy. I’ve already seen to that. You exist. Even if you jump in the Charles River today, like your mother once did, by the way, you have existed.”
“There are cleaner places to swim.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could be famous, you know”
“No, I don’t.”
“When my study is finally released, I suppose the authorities will want to see you.”
“And make me a lab rat in some government basement. That’s not going to happen.”
Just the thought of that was enough to spoil my dreams.
Aunt Jane is an odd duck. It’s her own description of herself, and it fits.
She came over here from England when she was nineteen or so. She’d failed whatever test was required to attend the university she wanted. Her dream was to be the twenty-first century Jane Austen. She thought her chances might be better over here.
Following in the footsteps of her namesake, she never married. She had her boyfriends, of course. I even met a few when I was younger and they would come by the house to pick her up for a date. But she was determined in her ambition.
It was Jane who got me to write. Everyday. When I was no more than three years old, every morning she would sit down and write and I would sit down beside her and pretend I was doing the same. As a consequence, of course, I went in a wholly different direction than the one my parents wanted for me. I was reading very well by the time I was five. My father thought I was going to be a prodigy. They were testing me about once a week at the MIT labs back then. He got me into a local private school for ‘gifted children.’ But I was already difficult to handle. Jane was the only one who had any real control over me. The private school expelled me within a year. He tried another. Having enjoyed the experience of success I had with the first, I was gone from the second school within three months.
When I started public school again, Jane said, “Do what they say. Go along. It will be easier for you, and them, and you can get home sooner and play.”
And that became my philosophy. Go along with it, and get it over with.
Of course, play for Jane meant books. I had learned to read French by the time I was seven. And then German.
At that point my mother stepped in. She was positive she could make a difference. I was indeed a prodigy! The problem was with the subjects my father wanted me to waste my time on. Forget about math! I was a natural linguist! I was packed off to a school in Vermont that specialized in languages. At least for another three months. And then I was back again.
The math was easy. As Father said more than once, “I was one of those fellows who could do the math in my head.” And it was the same for the languages. But by themselves, they were boring. Awkward. Inconsistent and pointless, or rule-bound and predictable. It was what you could do with the languages that fascinated me. The fun was in the writing and in getting as close as I could to the sense of things that was in my head.
I said that to my father once. I said, “What is water to you? H2O. A chemical equation. Somehow that excites you. I don’t see it. But water! Water may be the most fascinating thing on the earth! It’s hard and soft, salty and sweet. How do you describe the difference of color and smell and taste of the water mid-ocean? That’s not the ‘wine-dark sea,’ is it? And then right down there off Long Wharf? That green bilge! Do you remember those summers and the water pooled in the rocks up in Maine? That was sweet and salty both. You thought I was mad when I tried drinking it. And then to throw the changing light of the sun on all that! Or the glow of moon. That’s the very substance of life? But H2O? How boring.”
He had no idea what I was trying to say. But that was my fault. I just had to find a better way to say it. Or so I believed.
And Aunt Jane was always there. Whatever else she had taken on whenever I was away, she had always made room in her life to spend time with me again when I returned. And with my parents gone most of each day, and off to one conference or another for a week at a time, or just on their own personal pursuits, it was Jane who raised me. “The son I never had,” she said to me more than once.
After thinking over what I learned from my father for a day, I showed up at Aunt Jane’s little house in Arlington during her morning writing hours so I was sure she would be there. I told her everything straight away.
Her first words were, “I told you that you were different.”
“But a Neanderthal, for Christ sake?”
“Don’t blaspheme. You are a child of God, like all the rest of us.”
“I’m an experiment!”
“Not much of one, I’d say. Your father simply managed to do the hard way what everyone else does for the pleasure of it. But I told you when you were a little boy that you were different — more than just your size or the way you looked. And I was right.”
This was no salve.
“What do I do now?”
“Do what you would have done anyway. What difference does it make?”
“He is going to publish his study of me one of these days.”
“He would have done that anyway and you would have found out after the fact. Be glad your mother tipped his hand.”
Jane is still a handsome woman. I am not sure if she was ever a beauty. Children don’t think in such terms. Forgive me, but I’ve thought a few times over the years: I wish she was twenty years younger.
I said, “Where did you get your confidence? Ever since I was that little boy you told he was different, I have always been astounded by your confidence. Nothing like the arrogance of my parents. No assumptions. No presumptions. Just you on your way and the world folded around you.”
“For saying that. It’s always been the way I have felt. At home in the world, so to speak.”
“One day — One day I remember my mother telling you that they were letting you go again. I don’t remember which time it was. But you didn’t argue. You gave me a kiss on the cheek and a wink and slipped on your coat and walked out into the rain — it was raining terribly I remember–”
“I remember the day. Just a little rain.”
“And it was as if the sun was shining. Your usual step. The wave. The smile. And you were gone. That’s the way I always think of you.”
“Good! Keep that. And when I’m really gone, I’ll rest easy knowing that’s the way I’m remembered.”
“Not for your writing? Not for all your unpublished books?”
“Well, certainly, if they ever come to anything, that would be fine. I’m happy enough to have the time to write them, you see. But nobody cares about such things now. It’s all slam, bam, thank you ma’am now. If they are ever read, that will be good too. But I will never know about that, will I? What I do know now is that the fellow I think most of in the world has got the right idea of me. For that I am happy enough . . . Here, have some tea and tell me what you think you’ll do now.”
I hadn’t a clue.
“Do you have any beer?”
“It’s too early for beer. Have some tea.”
I would never tell Jane I thought my life was a joke. As much as she understands, she would not get the humor in that. Jane was, of course, my savior in all of this. She has the steady hand. I had some tea.
She said, “It’s a good thing you’re not easy to upset. If someone told me I was — well — not exactly what I thought I was, it would put me in a funk, I’ll tell you.”
The thought was unlikely. “I’ve never seen you in a funk.”
“Well, that’s because I go home and sulk. My mother, bless her soul, didn’t believe in being depressed. She was a single mom from the time she was sixteen. We lived near an ancient hill fort called Cadbury Castle that some thought had been the seat of King Arthur. It was really no castle at all but just a pile of rocks, but when I was small she took it into her head to earn a little extra by taking tours up and down the hill, and me with her. At heart she was a romantic. She worked her job and took care of me, without a whimper, that I remember . . . Of course she was very religious. I think that helped. That, and the television. She was devoted to the shows. I would tell her, ‘Mum, that fellow’s a cad. He’s going to take advantage of her. You can see that coming, can’t you?’ And she would say, ‘Hush. You’ll spoil it.’ Funny thing now, when I consider that — maybe it was one reason for my starting to write. To fix those shows up so they made some sense . . . You’ve heard me go on about Ms Punaji. Our neighbor. That dear woman lived in a fantasy world six thousand miles away, but she believed in it so. Annapurna and Shiva. Ganesha. And the illusionist, Maya. It was only when I tried to write down all the things she said that I realized there was a story to it. It still amazes me.”
“Yes. But you! You are not so easy. I’ve written about you, you know.”
“Yes. Well, that piece I showed you is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say. You fascinated me from the first . . . And one thing, especially.”
“What was that?”
“You don’t brood. There’s no funk in you, I’d say. Maybe I learned my ways from taking care of you, after all. Even when you were a little boy and they taunted you for being so much bigger in the playground, it was like water off a duck’s back. I remember some older boys came one day and before I knew it they had started a tussle. Of course, you had settled the matter yourself before I could help, but after, I said to you. ‘Don’t you mind what they say. You are not ugly. You are a handsome boy.’ And you said, ‘But they spoiled the game.’ All that concerned you was that they had spoiled the game you were playing with the others.”
I had been thinking a similar thought about Jane, and used the word handsome myself, to describe her, but I could not tell her that.
I told her, “I just don’t take note of it anymore. I was in the dining room with Father and I caught a few of the stares. I think he gets some sort kick out of it because they are looking his way too. He seems to like meeting me in public places.”
She was caught on her idea then. “You never did brood. That’s a fact. I don’t remember you ever expressing hurt feelings to me. I wonder if that’s just a part of your nature. Maybe that’s one way that you are different.”
That got me thinking.
When you read the old histories of Brits or Americans encountering new peoples — especially those they considered primitive, they most often note a certain passivity in the primitive when confronted with great distress. They usually ascribe this detachment to some sort of fatalism. But I think it is more likely a practical matter — facing constant hardship does not allow for the leniency of having ‘hurt feelings.’ If there is any dominant characteristic of Western culture, it is the raising of personal feeling above fact. ‘How do you feel,’ they say. When someone says ‘How are you,’ they are not asking about whether you are hot or cold or out of credits. They are asking how you ‘feel,’
Now Jane was presenting a different angle.
I feel. I’ve always thought I had the feelings everyone else has. I just have them and then get on with things. What is the point of dwelling on a feeling any more than dwelling on the thought that you’re cold. If you’re cold, do something about it. If you’re out of credit, earn some more.
But her thought had merit. It is something to consider. I am of a race that lived in extreme circumstances for hundreds of thousands of years. Perhaps there is some genetic difference. Any Neanderthal who spent time contemplating their navel would have quickly been lunch for another creature. Perhaps the unique quality of Homo sapiens–the difference that allowed them to succeed at last — was a greater capacity to dwell on their feelings. Maybe that weakness was, in the end, a strength. It is possible that my feelings are not the same as everyone else’s. How would I know?
I left Aunt Jane’s to go to work, already running late, and it had started to rain.
I avoid public transportation as a rule. The buses are always crowded and I get dirty looks as if I’m taking up too much space. But I was in a hurry.
I stood as far to the end as I could but with others near there was no getting by me in the aisle. The fellow next to me was reading a news report and looked up at me suddenly — stared me right in the eye.
He said, “Is this you?”
The lite-sheet in his hand had a headline ‘Neanderthal Lives!’
He was kind enough to let me read the first paragraph and then I got off into the rain even though it was not my stop.
‘Harvard professor recreates ancient human ancestor in joint effort with MIT.’
Of course, the headline was wrong, but that did not matter now.
The thought on my mind was how I would deal with it. My guess was that Father had worried about my telling someone else before he could, and decided it was better to get ahead of the curve and release the information his own way. Being tried in a court of public opinion might be preferable to the judgment of an academic star chamber.
My immediate response was that I was angry.
I found a dry doorway and called my father. He answered immediately. As if he had just been waiting for me to respond.
I said, “Don’t you think it would have been a simple courtesy to warn me.”
“What difference does it make, Billy? Now we can let it play out. It will take weeks, maybe months or even years for the politicians to figure out what response will be most beneficial for them. In the meantime, we can make your case. ‘Ancient race saved from extinction.’ That kind of thing.”
“Did you at least tell Mother?”
“No. I couldn’t. I did call her. But it appears she’s in a coma.” There was not a hint of change in the tone of his voice.
“When did you find that out?”
“Last night. I called her to tell her what I had told the reporter. I got a nurse instead.”
I didn’t bother to say goodbye. I just pushed the button to dial my mother. A man answered.
I said, “Who are you?”
He answered back. “Who are you?”
I said, “I am Ms Rice’s son, William.”
He said, “Are you the Neanderthal?”
I said, “Who are you?”
He said, “I’m Greg, with the Bay State Mortuary service. We’re just cleaning up here. What can I help you with?”
I called Jane.
She said, “Where are you?”
I told her. I told her about Mother.
She said, “Go home. Get dry. Get some sleep. We can talk in the morning.”
Then I noticed the blinking light for messages. I usually don’t get many messages. There were a hundred and seven.
I clicked the delete button until I saw a name I knew. That was from Joyce. Joyce was a girl I met at the club where I worked. We had dated for a while, before I found out her main interest was in a single part of my anatomy. I deleted that and the next twenty or so until the name of the club came up. I looked at the message they left. They were letting me go. They could not afford to have people hanging around the door just to see the Neanderthal bouncer.
And Jane had called before as well.
Her message was “It’s just a little rain.”
With no job now to get to, I went home.
My home is just one big room. The sink and half a refrigerator are in one corner by the biggest window, with the hot plate on top of the refrigerator. I think it was once the front parlor for the whole building back early in the last century when it was a single family home. The buildings there are all yellow-brick, three stories, flat roofed, connected, and face the Fens. There is nothing else of note along the way, so when I saw several television vans out in the street and a small cluster of raincoats at the entrance, I knew what was up. I went down the alley and in by the garbage cans. One enterprising fellow had staked that spot out and was just inside the shadow of the overhang at the door. He started to talk, but I didn’t let him finish. I picked him up and set him down in the puddle behind me. He was cursing over ruined shoes when I closed the door.
As soon as I turned on the light, someone tapped on the window. I closed the shades. The tapping continued. I suppose the idea was that I’d give up and answer them.
My next problem was obvious. What should I do?
I flicked on the TV to obscure the muttering of voices outside. A reporter at the Bradbury Station on Mars was interviewing several new mothers. Making babies appeared to be the primary sport of that godforsaken place. I punched the button for something more diverting. The next picture I saw was of me — an old one from when I had been arrested during an altercation with several BC students in Allston. It wasn’t much of an event, but one of the other fellows was the son of a police chief and I suppose it had been covered for that reason. I had never seen it before. I flicked it off.
I needed to go somewhere.
Like a helpless little boy, I called Aunt Jane again. She said, come on.
It might have been difficult getting anywhere without being seen, but I knew from my job that the cabs get their gas at the station just around the corner. A bouncer has to be able to call a cab when he needs one for a difficult customer.
I packed my duffle with what seemed most important — mostly things like shoes that you can’t get in the right size when you want them. I put the paper copy of the novel I was working on into a plastic bag along with my workboard. I slipped a couple bottles of beer in from the fridge, just in case Aunt Jane was out of stock, turned the TV back on, left the lights on as well, and then went out the back again.
The cabby wanted an exclusive on my life story. Given traffic in the rain, I had time to tell him the basic plot of a novel I wrote a couple of years ago. He seemed to buy it. I got out at the subway station in Harvard Square and went down and caught the T to Arlington.
To be sure, given the number of eyes watching me in the subway car, I got out one stop early. With the rain, and the duffle and the plastic bag, it made for a long trek.
Lots of time to think.
Starting with a fact. I was a freak. The life I had was pretty much over. What looked to be ahead was a freak show. Sure, the heat of the moment would pass, but whenever the newsies needed to fill some space, I would be their perfect update. You see it all the time. The latest chapter in the life of the first human being born on the moon. The girl with the neural implants who can do math faster than any computer. We know now that she likes barbeque sauce on her eggs. Did we have to know that?
Naturally that led to another thought.
I wanted to find out if there was indeed another of my kind walking the earth.
And the question that naturally follows — where should I look?
My mother had mentioned Zurich. Father had mentioned the Chengdu University. They had both mentioned the Dutch.
I slept on Aunt Jane’s couch and hung my wet clothes from her curtain rods. She keeps a very neat home and this additional decor looked worse than it might have otherwise. She was immediately sympathetic to my new ideas. And she had a six-pack of good Menotomy Ale. We talked until she looked exhausted.
But she did make a lighter load of it: “How do you find a Neanderthal in a haystack? Look for a damned big haystack?” I smiled at that in spite of myself.
I started very generally scrolling through reference pages on my lite-sheet. That was boring. Especially at slow speed. Jane does not have a dedicated ether-connection. She does not even have a TV. She writes by hand in grammar school composition books, just the way she has since she was a little girl. I gave her a workboard about six years ago for Christmas, because she had mentioned the arthritis in her right hand, and it was still in her closet. Rather than her using the machine, she has even tried more than once to get me to write by hand. She says it would slow me down long enough to choose my words more carefully. I don’t think it really matters. Neither of us has ever published a damned thing.
Even with the beer I couldn’t sleep. I drank all of that and then spent most of the night sitting at her little kitchenette table drinking her coffee and referencing key words. 99% of the hits were from stories in the past day and they referenced me. That was boring too. I decided to get much more specific. If this other ‘experiment’ were born roughly the time I was, in 2020, there might be reports. I flipped through several years worth of L’Hebdo and Beobachter and Topix. There was nothing in there or in abstracts referencing Zurich. There was something in the Handelsbad for Amsterdam. My Dutch is really bad — just a queer sort of German to me. But anyway, the reference was cryptic at best. Neanderthal. Tissue. Experiments were done. Results achieved were inconclusive. No reference to an actual childbirth.
However, there was something odd in a Dagblad article concerning the efforts at the same lab at the University of Amsterdam. A study group from the University of Leeds, paid for by Bayerpharm, had been on site for over a month, participating in various trials concerning genetics.
I quickly found that Leeds had conducted some sort of study prior to 2017, funded by another pharmaceutical company entirely. Miles. Then, there it was. I looked back. The Dagblad referenced a visit from the same University of Leeds study group to Amsterdam in 2019.
I was raised in a household that kept secrets. And research being done was always a closely held secret until it was time to publish results. Failures were more easily obscured that way. Successes could be uniquely claimed. And getting to the patent attorney usually proceeded any publication. Some research was conducted out in full view, but usually that was of the publicly funded sort. Private research, where the cost could be recouped only through exclusive rights, would not be shared. Why would Amsterdam bring in Leeds on a private study?
Hadn’t Mother mentioned Leeds?
I went back in my notes. And there it was. Leeds.
I spent the next day at the Boston Public Library. I can walk about six inches shorter than I actually am if I have to, at least for short stretches, and I kept to the rush hour crowd. I was there at the library door when it opened. They have study booths and I would be away from people knocking at my door, but most importantly, the internet connection is faster.
Picking up on the lede to Leeds, so to speak, I started checking through news reports after 2020. That’s a lot of material, even for a fast connection. But certainly easier in the period following the UN Free Press Directives. Many of the unsanctioned sources had disappeared by that date. “Bandit Journalism” had been outlawed. We had entered the ‘New Golden age of News,’ as it was famously touted by the officially recognized press. There were less than a fifth the number of news sources for the scanner to check than had existed only five years before. But there still was nothing obvious to my eye.
Clearly, if the birth were handled surreptitiously, there should be nothing there. What I wanted was something else. Taggable anomalies. They could possibly have kept the child in a basement room, but that’s unlikely. In the end, what does that prove? They would have wanted the subject to grow up as naturally as possible. They would have wanted to avoid the type of artificial influences that might skewer data.
That possibility opened up two other lines of inquiry in news reports. Academic results and athletic achievements. The easier of those — the one more likely reported by the news — was sports. I started with the academics. If the child was able to remember things as easily as I always have, then subjects like spelling or any sort of memory quiz would have been simple going.
The British love their quizzes. There were hundreds. Thousands, just in metropolitan Leeds over a three-year period from 2032 to 2038. I picked those years because the subject would have been between twelve and eighteen and that is when most such competitions for academic excellence are held locally and published for the eyes of proud parents in order to sell advertising space. No one stood out especially from the hundreds of winners. Many had won several competitions.
I had been regional wrestling champion in the intercollegiate games my freshman year. I dropped it after that. It was pointless to continue. But I got my name in the paper. I even had a fellow who said he was from the New England Patriots football team come by and invite me to tryouts. But that wasn’t where I was going.
I did not understand just then that I was headed for being a bouncer at a nightclub.
In the morning edition of the Leeds Mercury for 2037 was a notice. The Bradford Bluedogs had defeated the Leeds United Women’s Rugby Team for the first time in over forty years. The star, a uniquely athletic and notably large young woman, was one Elise Severn. She was a broad-faced and pretty girl in a green team jersey, with short blond hair held fast behind a red sweat-band, she was pictured being kissed by her mother and father on each cheek. The parents appeared to be at least half a foot shorter.
But protests had been lodged with the WRFL over her participation. In an interview several days later she had said that she was dropping out of play on the advice of her family.
The name was already familiar. Elise Severn had won three academic tournaments from 2033 to 2037.
There are many bright athletes. But I could not imagine another who looked like Elise Severn.
And she even had parents!
The fellow at the Menino building was immediately skeptical. He was not sure he should issue me a passport. He had no reason, particularly. He just had his reservations given the news reports.
He made me sit down again in those slippery little plastic chairs they have in the waiting rooms at every government office — the ones that makes your back hurt in about fifteen seconds. I suppose he was calling someone to check on me. I already knew I was the primary topic of conversation among the others scattered about that pale green space. This is not speculation. I could hear them. Some even knew my name. I was just thankful the office wasn’t busy.
When you are doing something like this on the spur of the moment, it is easy to lose your confidence. I tried not to think about a number of things. They were, of course, the only things that came to mind.
The credit account Mother had put in my name was large, but not that large. It was clearly meant to make sure I could take care of myself when I started getting old. This was a matter she seemed to agree with Father about and would happen sooner than for the average Homo sapiens. I should certainly not dwell on that!
Father had not come to the cremation service the day before. It was far easier to damn him for the thousandth time.
In fact, there had only been about twenty people in attendance at the service. I’m not counting the reporters. They were made to wait outside. My mother’s sister, Joan, was there. I’ve never called her Aunt Joan. She has never managed to spend more than five minutes in the same room with me before that singular occasion. I’d say she’s afraid of me, but her behavior had started like that when I was still very little. I could not dismiss the possibility that perhaps she knew something.
The priest who said the prayer was the same one who came to visit Mother several times when she was sick. She told me afterward that she couldn’t stand him. But then, Mother was not very religious and not forgiving of the tendencies of priests. The only one in the room who was crying was a rather tall woman who was Mother’s last doctoral student. I could not shake the idea that the weeping was ‘actually’ over the fact that she would have to find a new thesis advisor and that would set her degree off another year.
Joan sat in a cold silence staring at the priest’s feet, and that made me wonder about her again until I spoke to my mother’s lawyer after the event.
‘Mr. Grimm,’ Mother called him that — his name was Grimolsky — came over to me after the service and handed me a small thin envelope with my name on it, written in my mother’s hand.
No hello. Simply, “I was instructed to give this to you,” and the officious nod.
“What is it?”
“You can’t just tell me?”
Mr. Grimm looked both ways as if he was double-dealing in State Department secrets.
“Don’t make a fuss. You don’t want anyone in particular to put a court hold on this. She asked that I give it to you as soon as I could. And don’t worry, your mother took care of all the taxes. It’s a clear bequest. She even used the account you set up with her years ago when you were still a minor. It’s basically what remains of her savings.”
That was a complete surprise.
“What about Joan?”
“Joan will receive the proceeds from the sale of your mother’s property — minus charitable donations and taxes.”
Joan was by the door, talking to the priest, but she threw a look over at me and at Mr. Grimm and I knew then exactly what was making her so unhappy.
Mother’s letter to me, in the envelope along with the pass card, was short and to the point, of course.
‘You are likely to need this someday in the not too distant future. No need to be morbid about it. Just save it until then.’
No bid adieu. No affectionate good wishes.
It was well after dark when I got to Aunt Jane’s and told her about this. She cried. At least.
After about forty-five minutes of waiting in the slippery plastic chair I went back to the fellow at the passport window. I told him there were going to be some unhappy people if he didn’t give me the passport. I lied and said I’d been told to go to London and meet with some British authorities. I used the word ‘told.’ This implies higher authority. My authority was Jane, of course. She had decided to fly over and be my guide. She wanted to show me her homeland. (In fact, she had never been to Yorkshire in her life.)
This time I pushed some of the paperwork I’d photo-copied through the slot at the fellow. It all concerned Elise, though I knew he wouldn’t read it. He simply looked at the headers. Much of it was from British Public Documents and was marked with the logo for the British Museum of all things. He looked at me again through the clear plastic grill like he was staring at a strange animal in the zoo, and then he issued the damned plastic card that would let me go.
That much was actually easy. But there were still a lot of gates to go through.
The unpleasant idea of getting on a plane had settled another problem in my mind. I’ve never liked small spaces. Not since that little room at MIT and the colorful buttons. I used to finish those sessions as quickly as I could, just to get out of there — hitting the right color almost as soon as the light came on. Aunt Jane could fly by plane, of course. Or airship. The Branson’s were a little roomier than a plane, but the head height would mean I would be scraping the hair off my scalp every time I stood. And they took as much as three days, depending on the weather. Instead of flying, I would take a boat. I knew they were more expensive, but I was less likely to have a sudden attack of claustrophobia. I quickly discovered that this possibility was immediately closed to me, however. It was the wrong time of year. There were no passenger ships scheduled.
I looked again. There were, several cargo vessels scheduled to leave over the next ten days. I decided to take a tour of the docks. Only one of the ships looked busy. The fellow at the gate seemed oblivious to my presence. He was watching something that appeared to be naked, on a small screen. I walked on through to a flatbed truck in the midst of the hubbub. A fellow dressed in greys with the name of the ship on the pocket and a plastic identification tag clipped over that stared up at me like I was something they had to load and he didn’t know if I’d fit.
I started right in. “Do you carry passengers?”
He said, “What? A little too hot for you around here?”
He clearly knew who I was.
“I don’t like flying.”
“Sure. I can imagine. But the answer is no. Not usually . . . But we’ve made exceptions before. You got a passport? How much are you willing to pay?”
I nodded and held the passport up to his eye level. “I can’t afford much. How about the price of a plane ticket.”
“Nah. Not worth the trouble. $20,000. $20,000 will get you to Blackpool.”
I said, “Then I can’t afford that. Thanks anyway,” and started to turn.
He said, “15! That’s only about twice the cost of an air ticket, but you get the rollercoaster ride and the bunk and your meals thrown in.”
I was seasick the entire ten days except for a stop in Halifax. Nothing I ate stayed down. The fellow in the greys, his name was Jose, had me drinking sparkling water and juice until I started peeing regularly. The bunk was so small I had to sit upright, but that was probably for the better. The room was higher than it was long. By that time we were in port, and I stepped off onto British soil for the first time in my life, it was Thanksgiving Day back in America. I was most thankful.
I ate three helpings of fish and chips at a counter right on the street, within sight of the boat I came in on. An audience of sea gulls watched from the roof, and several children pushed into the spaces between the stools and stared up at me.
” ‘er yuoo de cave man?”
I squinted at them as if sizing them up for my next mouthful. They moved off, at least out of arm’s reach, but remained there until I left.
The counter man served me by pushing the paper plates across like I might grab his hand. After the third, he said, “D’you do those cave paint’ins I saw in France with the Missus on our honeymoon?”
I was at a loss. I said, “No. That was a cousin. I can’t draw.”
My next course was to get to Leeds. Jane would be ahead of me. There was a train through via Manchester and I bought a ticket. That trip took about six hours. Less than three hours of travel at reduced speeds against yellow caution lights and more than three hours of sitting on a siding while some problem with another train ahead was fixed.
And when I got off at the station in Leeds — right in front of me on the platform — there was a fellow flashing a press card and saying he was from the Telegraph. He wanted to know why I was there. I asked him how he knew I was there, and walked a bit faster. He ran beside me and said he had spoken to someone who told him. I said, if he wanted me to speak to him at all, he would have to actually tell me how he knew. He said another reporter mentioned it. I said that wasn’t good enough. He then said a fellow name Jose from Bamburg Shipping Express had called him.
I asked the reporter, “Why do you think they use the name ‘Express.’
He thought that was rather funny, and we got along fine from there. I lied to him about pretty much everything. I said I was there to see Jane, who needed some help getting around now. My only mistake was to add that she had been my nanny when I was a kid. This seemed to impress him. He liked the spirit of the thing.
“The old charge comes back to help the nanny.”
He even said that aloud, as if testing the sound of the words.
I found Jane at the Hotel. She had been busy giving instruction to the staff, all of which they seemed to have promptly ignored as soon as I came into the lobby. They watched me come in like I was the King of England. Even the manager greeted me. I said hello and that I would be very happy if he could do everything Jane had asked.
She had managed to get an extension on the bed in my room and I had my first night’s sleep in over two weeks laying flat.
The headline in the Telegraph the next morning, just below the latest death tolls from the para-flu in Jakarta, was ‘The Neanderthal and the Nanny.’
At least it made me smile. Jane was not amused, but you have to have a sense of humor about some things.
At the main building of the University of Leeds, an ugly construct of glass and metal and cement right out of the 20th century, I was met by a woman who appeared to be waiting for me. It was cool and she must have seen me from indoors because she came through the doors into the plaza to meet me.
Like Mother’s lawyer, there was no, ‘Hello, how are you, my name is–.’ She was talking to me before I really understood it was me she was after. “I thought you’d come — I think we were hoping you would come. ”
My first impression of her was that she must be in that vague territory between 50 and 60. A bit older than Jane. A little gray hair. Some wrinkles at the eyes. But still all the right shapes. It turned out she was seventy. I did not know the reason for her ‘youthful’ appearance until later. That doesn’t really matter to this account, except, according to her name tag, she worked for Miles Pharmaceuticals and that evening I found out they were experimenting with aging and soon enough understood that Elise was somehow part of that.
Walking behind her, I managed to get her name as she escorted me up the hall, and an appreciation for the benefits of exercising the gluteus maximus after a certain age. Nothing more. She ushered me into a conference room and a table, held down by two fellows who looked like they needed a nap and I assumed were security by the fact that neither wore a jacket. Then she sat across from me and began to alternately explain what her own interest was as well as to ask questions about my life history. I tried my best to tell her everything that occurred to me about the main character from the very first novel I ever wrote. He was a big fellow too and at least that was somewhat autobiographical.
For every answer I gave I asked another question of her.
“I weighed one hundred and forty pounds when I was ten years old. Did you know I existed before this?”
“Of course not. We would have tried to contact you. Or Dr. McGuire. How much do you weigh now?”
“Two-fifty. About 114 kigs. Is Elise Severn here today?”
Most importantly, this Ms Evans assured me that I would be able to meet with Elise. Elise knew I was here.
“She is working in another part of the campus. She’ll be coming as soon as she’s free. Did you take the Park-Johnson intelligence evaluation?”
“Twice. They didn’t believe the first set.”
“Do you know your results?”
“No. It was never of interest to me.”
Actually, my mother had administered the Park-Johnson every year from the time I was five. I knew my results very well. They were no one else’s business.
The wait wasn’t long. Elise came in with a frown already fixed on her brow and shut the door hard. The girl in the news photograph had grown a bit, but she still looked more like a girl to me than a woman. I stood and offered my hand. All I said was, “I am William McGuire.”
That seemed to be enough to light the fuse. Her brow curled and darkened.
“I know who you are. I think half the world knows who you are, and your bloody Nanny Jane. What are ya doin’? They warned us you might show up. They even offered to give us a holiday so we could be somewhere else when ya did, but that would only prolong the embarrassment, wouldn’t it. Let’s get it over with now. ”
I lowered my voice a notch. “I thought we should meet.”
“Then ya should have sent us a letter. We’re in the list. Instead ya’ve come in here like a parade, with the cameras and reporters under every bush and around every corner. Now everybody in Britain knows we’re a freak.” She seemed to catch herself, then. Her tone of voice changed. “I was just the great big ugly girl from Leeds. Now I’m really the bloody freak. What have you done?”
“You’re not ugly.”
She wasn’t near finished.
“I know why I’m here! What did you think? I’ve known about my genes since I was eighteen. It wasn’t that hard to figure out.” Her tone shifted again as she spoke faster. “They were only too glad to tell us once they thought we could handle it. The question is, why are you here? Did you just want to bop someone your own size. Was that it? And once for the cameras, maybe?”
“What are you talking about?”
I had an inkling. A couple of the characters in my novels enjoyed active sex lives. The reporters might even have gotten into my databank. They could be reading my stories.
“We read about you in the news. Rather full of yourself, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’ve read.”
“What did you think you were going to do then? Whack us on the head with a club then and drag us off by the hair?”
“I was just going to tell you . . . to let you know . . . that you were not alone.”
She suddenly quieted. She was obviously distressed. Upset. And I was a little worried. Lying to the press had taken a toll. There was a lot of false information floating around now and I was the source. Probably every bit of it recorded on phone so I couldn’t deny what I had said.
Ms Evans was standing beside Elise and started to speak but I held my hand up in her face, like she was a schoolgirl crossing the street, to get her attention. As far as I was concerned, everything Ms Evans had said previously was as truthful as anything I had given out to the press.
“I’ve been trying to fend off reporters for the last couple of weeks. I’ve said a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have. Giving them some tale crazier than what they were chasing seemed like the only way to break free of them. And it’s true. I am a liar. I enjoy that. Lying seems to be the way I’ve always gotten along. I write stories. It keeps me sane — no — that’s not fair. Sane is not exactly what it is. It keeps things ‘balanced.’ I don’t feel like the world is falling apart when I can write a story and put it back together again. It’s just what I do . . . I only found out about myself less than three weeks ago. I’d managed to pretend a lot of things before that, but I really wasn’t ready for the truth. And then, almost immediately after, I found out there was someone else. I found out about you. And I just thought it was important to see you before everything else turned upside down on me. I think it was a good thing for me to learn that you were here. I felt — normal again.”
She shook her head with a sudden jerk, “You’re not. You’re a freak!” She sat down. Ms Evans sat down. The three sleepy bodyguards sat up. Elise spoke then as if suddenly subdued by drugs. I knew the voice. I had used it a thousand times when I had found myself in a fix and wanted to keep things under control. She said, “Just like I am . . . We’re both freaks. Genetic aberrations. Miscreations. Monstrosities. Grotesques. Accept it. Live with it.”
Elise slumped in her chair. I think she felt a little defeated.
I sat down. “I for one, think I’m pretty normal. Maybe too damned normal given the kind of parents I had. But that was because of the infamous Aunt Jane you’ve heard so much about. She was in fact my Nanny. She raised me, not my parents. She taught me that the world is what it is and either I accepted it and lived with it, or I could try to change it, but I have no excuse to be unhappy so long as I had the choice. That I should not expect the world to change ,just for me . . . What about your parents. What were they like?”
This straightened her back a bit. I was looking directly into her eyes then — as blue as blue ought to be.
She said, “Simple folk. Normal people. They never really understood. They wanted a child and the paid-surrogate wasn’t interested in the job, so I was this big baby nobody else wanted, and then I was just their daughter . . .Their big ugly daughter.”
“Why do you say that again? Why do you use that word ‘ugly.’ Where does that come from? Did your parents ever tell you that you were ugly?”
She paused over that and Ms Evans took the chance to speak up. “It’s just the way it is in school. Children say things.”
I asked Elise, “But why would you believe it?”
Amazingly she said something outright which still surprises me to this moment.
She said, “Look at us.”
I said, “I am.”
“I’m– . . . WE are not normal!”
“I always thought I looked a bit Scandinavian.”
She nodded at that once, like it was a smart-ass answer. “Alright. Very good. You are happy with the way you are. I’m not. That’s just the way that is. And now you know that there is indeed another freak like you on this Earth. Now you can go home.”
Ms Evans spoke again, but this time to Elise. “You don’t want that. At least you should take some time and get to know one another.”
Elise held her hand up this time. “Stop! I know what you want. You want to make another baby. That’s ALL you want. Now is your chance to double your assets! That’s all it is to you! The answer to that is NO! I’m not going to have any part of that. No sex. No babies. Mr. McGuire can go home and make himself as many half-breeds as he wants. I’m not a part of that bargain. And if you want us to keep working here, send him home, quick!”
Elise got up and left the room so suddenly one of the bodyguards fell backwards in his chair trying to keep his eye on her.
Her hair was not actually blonde. Sort of a dirty blonde, I think they call it. She did have the strong brow, but she also had the broad cheeks. Mine are rather soiled by a beard that grows almost fast enough to see, but hers were rosy. And her eyes were an unmistakable blue. The same blue I saw every morning of my life in the mirror and yet suddenly now, they were very appealing.
Jane was not at the hotel when I got back.
“Gone to see the Roman wall of Eboracum and the Shambles of York,” said her note. My lite-sheet informed me that this Eboracum was an ancient name for York, and that it was only twenty-five miles away. She could be back in time for dinner.
When the front desk called later and said she’d be late, I went on to a recommended pub and filled up.
The only other interesting thing was that the fight I managed to get myself into in the pub was over those same two words. “Ugly freak.”
I hadn’t realized how much of what Elise said had affected me. The fellow who spat the words at me had repeated them when I didn’t react the first time. He deserved to have his face cracked.
The police issued me a paper citation and told me to report to them the next day.
The headline for the Guardian on the lite-sheet, ‘Cave man brawls,’ seemed to me to be lacking in any wit.
Aunt Jane returned very late. I was actually home from the police station by the time she arrived and I heard her in the next room, but I was in bed.
She called me at 7:00 the next morning and told me to meet her in the Breakfast Parlor downstairs. She was already at a table when I got down and immediately started in on blaming British public transportation for missing me the night before.
I asked her, “How did you like the Shambles?”
She answered, “Never saw it.”
“The Roman wall of Eboracum?”
“Missed it . . . But I met this charming couple. The fellow is retired now but he used to work for the Postal Service. His wife is a dear. She makes jewelry from sea glass — Look!” She pulled the strand at her neck out from within her blouse and displayed it in the gloom from the window.
“I had dinner with them at their home and we just talked ourselves to exhaustion.”
“Where’d you meet them?”
“Bradford, I think they call it. The number 12-double-n bus to the number 2-e.”
“That’s east of here. That’s not where York is.”
“No. I didn’t go to York. We can do that together today.”
“I have to report to the police today.”
“I smashed a fellow in the face.”
“He needed it.”
She shook her head with my hopelessness. “I have tried my best to teach you not to react to other people like that, even if they need it. ”
“You’ve done your best.”
“When are you supposed to report?”
“He’s not dead, is he?”
“No. Just a bump. A couple of bumps.”
“Well then, still lots of time to go to York.”
“But I thought I’d go over and try to talk to Elise again.”
“No, no. Let her be. Let her think it through. It’ll be fine. She’s at least as stubborn as you are. But she’ll think it through and then she’ll realize that at least you ought to be friends.”
“It didn’t sound like that yesterday.”
“Well, what do you expect? Some women are fine and dandy with a headlong assault, I suppose. But I don’t know of any. You have to take it easy.”
“I’m glad for your confidence.”
“It’s just the way it is. Like you, she’s good hearted. Remember, she’s just been through a difficult time.”
“How do you know she’s good hearted? How do you know this whole thing isn’t a terrible mistake on top of two very awful mistakes to begin with?”
“Because I met her Mum and Da.”
I made the police office on time despite getting Aunt Jane to recount the gist of her near daylong conversation with Elise’s parents. I was fined “200 quid.” The clerk said that. The word ‘quid’ had a nice sound to it after reading it in novels all these years. They processed my card for 315 credits. The exchange rate, I suppose. All in all I thought it was a cheap price to pay for a great pleasure.
Aunt Jane and I were in York well before noon. It was not raining but it looked like it might. We were actually standing up high on the Roman wall, a place built two thousand years ago, probably by Pict slaves captured in battle, when Elise called me.
She was so furious her voice had dropped to that near baritone — difficult to hear in a steady wind off the Wolds.
“What is this then? Is it all just a big joke to you? Is that it? You care so little for yourself that you have made a joke out of your whole life? Did you actually come over here with a plan? How could you think so little of yourself? Now you’re brawling in the pub we go to every day? Making a joke out’a both of us? And my parents! You sent your insidious Aunt Jane off to subvert my parents too! You are a monster!”
She did not let me speak. After she was off, I repeated most of what she had said aloud.
Aunt Jane apologized.
I had nothing relevant I could think of to say in return, so I said, “Let’s go to London. Let’s see some sights before we go home.”
She objected. “London stinks like old rags. Let’s go to Somerset. The heather smells good even in the winter. The air is fresh. And it’s warmer. And I know a pub in Wincanton where they have manners.”
She noticeably shivered to give that emphasis.
The Leeds train took us to St. Pancras in London. There was no time to wander around that place in the dark of night, even if I had wanted to. I will have to go back some day.
A cab took us to Paddington. The Paddington train would take us Bristol. Even in the dark, the cab driver must have recognized me. His eyes were on his mirror more than the road.
“Yorkshire is cold this time of year. Better seen in July. Going to the west, are you? The late flowers are still in bloom at Falmouth, my sister says. I hope you have reservations. The hotels fill by Christmas.” Jane grunted repeatedly in response without discouraging him.
When we were sitting in Paddington Station, waiting for the early train, a Telegraph reporter showed up with a digital rig and did his bit asking us questions, which we did not answer, but he kept shooting as if we just might if he stayed there near us long enough. I had a certain idea of what would happened with the footage. The big screen over our head showed a clip of the dead and the dying in the ongoing drought of northern Nigeria. A fire in Barnsbury. Then a picture of me, probably taken at the station in Leeds. I never noticed the camera at the time. I was talking in the picture and though I could not understand my own words in the echo of the waiting room, the reporter watched attentively and left me alone for a moment. Then, suddenly there was my father’s face, outside his office at Harvard, explaining to someone else how his process was not cloning. It finished with the reporter asking Father if he had made any other clones besides myself, and my father’s hand catching the light as it batted the camera away.
I stupidly turned to the Telegraph reporter when that was over, “There’s para-flu in Jakarta, famine in Africa, and civil war in the Middle East, Tibetans are being slaughtered by the Chinese and Chinese are being slaughtered in Malay. Why do you want to waste your time on following me?”
The reporter said, “Because we got more eyes-on for the story we ran on you yesterday than we got for the rest of the sheet combined. Nobody wants to read about the starving children in Africa. They want to read about you!”
I fully expected the fellow to get on the train with us, but he was standing on the platform as it pulled away.
It may be a golden age for the press, with their stories filling every space that might be looked at by more than a few dozen eyes a day, but it makes for a sort of sur-reality where hundreds and thousands of moments in time, past and present, are competing for attention with the moment occupied by yourself. The odd fact has become king. What was once common — what we all had in common — was buried beneath. The story of a two-headed boy who could speak in two languages — but one of them only understood by his other withered head, did not appear to strike the audience as the obscene tragedy it was — a tragedy for the boy, and obscene for the news that carried the pictures and goaded the words for the audience. And this was especially cruel in that it ran just above an animated advertisement for baby food.
We had rented a van in Bristol. A van was the only rental that would allow me to sit upright. And I had paid for it in advance to save time. Another reporter met us as we stepped out of the train there and followed us from the terminal to the rental office. We tried our best to ignore her, but she stood then just outside the van and continued to speak to us as if we would suddenly find our tongues. She wore a light blue raincoat with an identification tag that dangled wildly through the windshield from her lapel, right in front of my eyes. The strategy seemed to be that her coat was unbuttoned just enough to offer a promise of pleasant things beneath. Aunt Jane rolled her eyes.
Not for the first time I wondered, what would make a perfectly healthy looking person do a job like that? Why was there so little pride? What exactly was the story behind that?
Aunt Jane does not drive. Never did. And with the distraction of gaping décolletage, it took me at least five minutes to get an idea where all the little buttons were. The steering wheel was on the wrong side, but the real problem was that all the buttons are reversed. If you are as left-handed as I am, you know the difficulty. During that five minutes the reporter asked every one of the same questions we had been asked before by every other reporter. Perhaps more urgently. I found that very boring.
And the pub in Wincanton was closed. Had been closed for over twenty years. It was now a shop selling cheddar cheeses and some of the local manufacture.
We bought several bottles of the local ale and some cheese and crackers and then parked in spaces designated by the National Parks service and walked up to the top of Cadbury Castle, ‘which is no castle at all but just a pile of rocks.’ With a view. Even in the rain.
Aunt Jane pointed out the familiar details from her childhood, with the clear voice of nostalgia. A black and white bull with a wet pink nose had once roamed over that fence on our right. Hawks nested every year in a particular oak above the pasture, but the branch was missing now, perhaps to wind or lightning. I easily imagined her walking there at her mother’s side and a small party of visitors trailing.
Half way up there was a turnstile on a pasture fence to let people through but not the cows. I had never seen one before. Aunt Jane brushed her hand at it.
“Some damned tourist will steal the thing at least once a year as a quaint relic. The little barn down there by the lot has a dozen more. At least it did when last I knew.”
The old woods surrounding the hill are deep and old and dense, trees gnarled in angry faces, and appeared filled with mysteries. This illusion she shattered too.
“There are fellows whose job it is to clear away what doesn’t look just right. They trim the brush back and nurse the trees. They drive an artificial knot in the tree when its young to get those looks. It’s all for the tourist, you understand. The weather has them off today, but if the sun were shining there would be dozens of them and that little lot would be filled and the traffic police would be issuing tickets to fellows dressed up in tin armour and ladies dressed in flowing gowns and they’d all be making their way up to the top and holding their dresses just so, “Aunt Jane demonstrated with fingers pinching a pleat in her skirt, “and the minister from the church in Castle Mead would marry them right there where they think King Arthur once married Guinevere.”
“No.” I protested. “That all happened up north by Carlisle!” She shrugged at me. “But I guess you can’t tell people anything, unless it pleases them. Arthur was a Briton. His seat was Carlisle.”
“I think she might have known, but Mother told them what they wanted to hear.”
As we walked up the winding road to the ruin, she recited part of the spiel she had heard a thousand times herself. Her words echoed on the drift of the fog.
“. . . And the fires could be seen all the way to the ships in the channel, and they would know what decisions had been made . . . ”
The woods dripped great huge drops on our heads from the bare limbs in response.
At the top Aunt Jane propped our umbrellas up in the crooked arm of an oak tree that had squeezed itself out from a break in those big boulders and then laid a blanket down for us beneath that. We sat on either side of the drips from the middle and drank the ale first, and dangled our feet off over the lichen and the moss in the mist. The cheese and crackers were gone pretty quick, but we made the ale last.
I said, “You know, the story I told you about my mother and father sitting on the wall and her falling into the Charles.”
“A good story.”
“Do you think she loved him then?”
“Certainly. I do.”
“How do you know? You were wrong about Elise.”
This comparison of these two matters was not exact and got a queer look from Aunt Jane before she answered, “I’m not wrong yet. Not yet. But I got to know your mother pretty well over the years. She fired me six times you know. That includes the last. She was difficult, it’s true. She had her own ideas, like we all do. But a woman doesn’t just have a baby as an experiment. Not one as smart as your mother. She was under the spell of love. That happens.”
I looked Aunt Jane in the eye.
“But never to you.”
Her voice went suddenly sharp. “What do you know?”
“Not enough, I think.”
“Not enough, indeed!”
“So, I take it you were once in love.”
“Once. Once was enough.”
“And what happened?”
“Well, I’m not going to say ‘it’s none of your business’ after the mess I made with Mr. and Mrs. Severn, but I will say I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Was it in America?”
“No. It was here. Over in Taunton. I got a job there first thing, to get out of our little flat, and he was there at the store, and that is that and done so don’t ask me any more.”
“Do you know if he is still around these parts?”
“No. He’s not. But no more. Please. You’ll make me cry.”
It explained something to me, though. I understood a little better why Aunt Jane wanted so much for me to find ‘a girl.’ Even such a big girl.
“Where did you live then?”
“Just below there, in Castle Mead.”
She pointed out to the scattered roofs of orange and gray, darkened by rain.
“Was it what I hear called a ‘council flat?’
“No, it wasn’t,” she said that sharply. “My mother had grown up in a council flat and she wasn’t going to have the same for me. We lived at the rectory of the church. It was a basement, but the back was open to roses on a stone wall and to the sun in the south and it never felt like a basement. Mum cleaned the church and the rectory and for that she got a place there that they kept for unwed mothers.”
“You never told me this before.”
“You never asked.”
“I did. A hundred times I did. You just made something new up each time until I got tired of asking.”
She shrugged that off. “I suppose I did.”
“You know, I hold you responsible for teaching me to lie.”
“I never taught you. It came natural.”
“I suppose so.”
She got up and straightened her skirt and pulled the umbrellas down from the tree. “So, now I’ll show you Castle Mead. That should take but five or ten minutes. Then we’ll go over to Wincanton. There is an old fellow there who’d better not be dead. I want you to meet him. I don’t like my few relatives all that much so we can skip them. There will be obligations if we go to see just one. Maybe, if there’s time, we’ll check on a girl I knew in Yeovil. She was from South Cadbury and left home when I did and walked with me all the way to Taunton. We both worked at the Dell Brothers there. That place is closed now, but Kit married one of the Dell Brother’s sons and I think it worked out for them. The last I knew they have a store of their own.”
“What do they sell?”
“Same as the old place. Clothes.”
“Do you think they’d have anything that might fit me?”
“No. Women’s clothes.”
“And then where to.”
‘We could just idle around.”
I suggested, “We could go up to Cheddar Gorge as see about some more cheese.”
“No, we shouldn’t do. It’s twice as dear there.”
I said, “You look pleased to see all this. Would you like to spend a few days here without me?”
She did not hesitate to consider the idea.
“No. I left this place for a reason.”
“I thought it was because your mother died. Or was that just another story?”
“A true one. But I left for another reason. And I have no story for that.”
“The fellow that broke your heart?”
“I broke my own heart. It’s what we all do a few times I suppose, trying to make something out of nothing. But after that, I never found all the pieces.”
I had been watching two figures through the bare gray limbs of the woods, walking up the road from the parking spaces. One had a light blue raincoat and I was pretty sure who she was.
“They found us.”
“Quick then. Down the back way.”
I felt like a kid playing hide and seek, but the fun was in seeing Aunt Jane step lively on the boulders and then hop into the slick grass and find her footing like a goat. I didn’t know that was in her.
She took me down a path that was invisible but for the near break in the trees and the narrow stones that came one after the other like steps.
Castle Mead is the smallest of villages, nestled at the foot of their once-upon-a-time fortress. The church is small as well, but it’s the largest man-made object to be seen from there for miles. We came out from the path in the very middle of a narrow main street constricted by house walls and garden walls and walls that had no apparent reason other than to be walls, with a broad roll of green pasture beyond the houses themselves that made each one stand out starkly in the rain.
At the very first house Aunt Jane started talking as she walked.
“And here is where Mr. Wentsom lives. His daughter has cerebral palsy. He wheels her up and down the lane twice a day. She never speaks, but he talks to her all the time and hopes she hears . . . And this is where Mrs. Carl keeps her chickens — right there in that end of her house, like part of her family. I don’t know how she can eat them, but she does. And that is–”
“Wait. Those are people in your notebooks. I’ve read about them before. Are they real?”
“No. And yes.”
“No. But I thought you’d like to see, because you always liked the stories.”
She went on like that, house after house. The entire village populated by figments of her imagination. It took her more than twice as long as she had estimated, even without a halt in her pace.
“Show me the wall with the roses.”
“Well, they are not there now. In season, those brown tendrils are blessed.”
We stood by a four-foot high stone embankment that surrounded the church on all sides, ranging back and down to what must be a small run of water.
“Where did you live?”
“In the rectory. Behind us here.” I turned around on the narrow road and looked at a rough stone house with its own high stone barricade. “The Priests lived above . . . And I can even see the light on in the kitchen below. The unwed mother of the moment is making her supper.”
A woman looked back out at us, eyes wide. I imagine what it must have looked like with me peering over the enclosure.
We walked on and around to the parking lot, and were barely in the van before we saw the blue raincoat come down the road at a hurried pace, slipping repeatedly on the wet leaves.
“Now, enough,” Aunt Jane said suddenly, “Let’s go on back to Yorkshire where you want to be and get that much settled and then we can go home again. But first we’ll go over and see Kerry, tomorrow after breakfast.”
I had rented the only two rooms in a bed and breakfast cottage in North Cadbury. The bed was not as long as I had hoped. But they did have their own officially permitted internet access because the smiling lady who greeted us sold her homemade rosehip jelly all over Europe. Aunt Jane had a small package of that sent home. And I was happy then that the parking was at the rear and would not be readily seen by anyone searching for us. The smiley-lady promised to keep our being there a secret.
In the morning, there was another van out front of the bed and breakfast when we were eating our eggs and Canadian bacon with tomato and toast. A paper copy of the Weekly Times lay open on the side table where we couldn’t miss it. It featured a story on a British chemical manufacturer at the L-5 space colony going bankrupt and the Japanese company that had offered to take over management of the property. Just below that was an only slightly shorter feature on Aunt Jane and myself, which included a picture. The picture was of Jane when she was not yet twenty. Her local connections had been discovered.
At least the smiley-lady offered me seconds, which I accepted.
Thankfully, Aunt Jane knew another short cut.
The roads in South Somerset are narrow and walled by hedgerows or stone at both sides and though I supposed our van could be seen over the tops of the hedges, I drove a little too fast and was lucky enough to miss the brown goose at one turn. I have no idea if the TV crew hit the poor bird, but we lost them in the same area.
Kerry was a name I knew well enough. Through the years, whenever there was a question or problem that perplexed her, she would often say the words, ‘I’d ask Kerry if he were here.’
I said, “Maybe I’ll ask Kerry what I should do.”
Aunt Jane said, “You won’t have to ask twice.”
The old man was ninety-two. Beardless. A wisp of white hair was left on a head that looked a lot like a spotted bird’s egg. He popped up out of his thread worn chair when we came in, faster than I expected he could, after hearing the voice of his daughter saying who had come.
“Lord Bless us, it’s Betty Jane.”
Aunt Jane hugged him hard enough to hurt, I thought. He could not have been as fragile as he looked. His wool sweater had moth holes up the back. When Aunt Jane asked him later if he had a better sweater than that to show off to visitors, he said he didn’t need it because his back was always to his stuffed chair.
“Is this the big fellow, as if I needed to ask?”
“It is. You’ve heard?”
“Lori tells me the news. I can’t read anymore. But tell me now if you wrote your book! Lori will read that to me as well.”
Aunt Jane shook her head in mock shame, “Not yet finished. A few more years are needed to get that done.”
Lori stood close by most of the time, quietly, nodding at answers, and rolling her eyes at her father’s questions. The room was small and the furniture matched it well in size, so I stood there by his daughter, and every once in a while I would catch her looking up at me sidewise.
Kerry had been born in this same room. Had spent the first year of his life close by the same hearth that was before us, darkened through all the years but for the red grin of several chunks of coal.
Their house was one in a row of the same gray stone, each built when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Kerry had been born in 1956. Another century–another millennium–but as I watched, he might just as well be back there now. As if he had ever left.
When a word did not come quickly enough to mind, Lori spoke up to fill in the blank, and the old man scowled back.
“Let’s see, we had the floods after you left, and then–”
Lori said, “It was ten year after.”
“And then Mother died of pneumonia. And the boy went off to Australia. He’s there now. Sells machinery of some kind. He sends me the brochures, but I can’t tell what they do –”
“They process fiber.”
“And Lori, she has stayed back, just to pester me, so I’ll keep from passing alone. Now, you tell . . . Tell me about your big fella here.” He turned back toward me for a quick glance.
Aunt Jane took up the topic without hesitation. “William came over here — dragging me along for protection you understand — to see if he could find a girl — of his own kind you might say — who lives in Leeds.”
I started to say, “Not exactly–”
But the old man held his hand up at me. “We know all about that. The damned fool talked to the reporters. Why didn’t you protect him from that? ‘Adam finds Eve in the garden of Leeds.’ It just isn’t necessary!”
I defended myself, “That’s a poor rewriting of a line from a book I wrote about an alien . . . I don’t know how they got that. I didn’t say anything–”
“Another writer! Is that it! You have raised the boy up with your own frustrations.”
Aunt Jane objected, “That’s not fair–”
I interrupted that, “If anything, she discouraged me. I probably did it more to trouble my parents.”
Kerry said, “If she had stayed back in Castle Mead, she’d have written more, I think.”
Aunt Jane defended herself, “I think not! I’ve written what I wanted. That’s enough.”
Kerry laughed, “Now, that’s her voice! That’s the voice I remember. Stubborn to the knees.”
For thirty years, Kerry had built and rebuilt the stone wall that encircled the Church and rectory in Castle Mead. His never-ending job. And for some dear portion of that time a little girl would come out from the rectory and speak to him as he worked. He was in half a dozen of her stories.
The old man shook his head sorrowfully, “But you never married. One git and your appetite is spoiled for life. To think, some bloke is out there now, wandering the moors without hope.”
He turned from Aunt Jane and looked up over his shoulder at me, all the lines of his face gathered in pity, I thought.
“So you’ve come to ask me what you should do, is it?. Well you should . . . Because I don’t know a bloody thing about any of this, or less than that, because I’ve heard the ‘news’ and that has subtracted from my store of knowledge and sapped my energy just trying to comprehend such foolishness. And under these circumstances you have come here to have me offer a bit of wisdom over this matter that is so mysterious to me . . . Well, I can do that. I can, that! If you are here talking to me, then that means your brain is terribly addled — flummoxed. So let go of all that, and follow your heart and have done with it, whatever way it goes. That’s what I can tell you. That, and stop talking to the damned reporters.”
We arrived in Bristol after dark, but the woman in the blue raincoat was at the station when we got there. She seemed content to just watch until it was time to board. After we sat down and put our luggage away on the rack, she sweetly spoke to the gentleman in the seat ahead and asked him to move, and suddenly in one motion, flipped the back of the seat over and sat down so that she was facing us.
She said, “We should have time now to get to be friends.”
Her raincoat was gone in a gesture, as well as the jacket she had worn beneath. Both were thrown atop a briefcase on the seat beside her. Her blouse was open again to the third button and her press card dangled from one side now to be certain it would stay agape.
Aunt Jane said, “You people have treated us very shabbily. I don’t think ‘friends’ is in the cards.”
The reporter said, “My name is Grace,” she extended her hand. Aunt Jane looked away at the window. “And you are Aunt Jane. I am very happy to meet you. I’ve read so much about you.”
“Little of it true.”
“What did we get wrong?”
“Every word including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
“Ah, that is from the American author, Mary McCarthy isn’t it? How very sweet. However, it’s not the press that has been telling fibs. Is it? We would have had the real story and been gone about other business except Mr. McGuire here has insisted on fabrication. His wild tales caught the public imagination. As someone who appreciates knights and King Arthur and all of that, I’m sure you will appreciate — now the gauntlet has been thrown, it’s only fair we pick it up.”
I said, “Actually, the gauntlet did not come into use until the eleventh century, I believe. Arthur lived in the fifth.”
She took a short breath of dramatic surprise, “He speaks! And it’s good to make your acquaintance as well, Mr. McGuire.”
She actually batted her eyelashes at me. If She was going to be so arch, I had room to play.
“The pleasure is all your own, I am sure. As for blaming me for the fact that you are too lazy to do your own research, or know anything in fact about the subject you’re writing about — which I understand is a tradition in your business — I reject the claim. I’m an author. Not a grotesque.”
She raised a brow, “A bouncer, I understand. An author perhaps, but certainly an anomaly.”
I tried to play with the words to keep my own temper. “In a world of anomalies, there is no reason to make a fuss over me, other than to fill some sad and boorish hole in the heart of mankind.”
“Very prettily said. That’s the author coming out, I’m sure.”
I was riled. “The author in me is curious how anyone can be so lacking in principle and shame, much less human empathy, that she would keep at a job once she discovered it involved collecting the scum from the toilet bowls rather than simply flushing it, and then not wash her hands of it, or move on.”
“How very descriptive–”
I had spoken with more pique than I wanted–especially given everything I had learned while lying awake in bed with cold feet. Propping my workboard against my knees is a habit when I cannot sleep.
I said, “No. Not good enough. Scatological comparison has a tendency to leave the stink behind. Allow me to withdraw the simile and try for something closer to the mark. Whores, famously, will do anything for the right price. But what is your excuse now? You earn something less that 2000 quid a week. As an old-time American journalist in the last century used to wonder, ‘what’s the rest of the story?’ ”
Aunt Jane’s mouth was now agape as wide as the reporter’s blouse. She had never heard me talk that way before. I winked at her. She shook her head at me in objection. I knew the look. I was being mean. Revenge was not a sufficient excuse in her view.
Grace had lost the sparkle in her eye.
“I see. You think you can put me off by attacking me personally–”
“No need for that. You’ve done that job yourself . . . I believe you grew up in a council flat in Manchester?”
The surprise was in the single flinch of her eyes. Otherwise she showed no reaction. She answered quickly.
“So did a million others. A less than boring topic. My job is to focus on things a little less common.”
“No? Well, we have our public housing in America as well. Most people never escape the mentality of it. Or the diction. But very few go to the lengths you have. You changed your name . . . Twice, I believe.”
“How would you –?”
“Research. You dangled your name tag in my face. I thought obliged to make use of the information. What I found was not what I expected. That name — your current name — suddenly appears for the first time nine years ago, when you started at the City College of London. Before that it was Shields, I believe. That was the name you used when you were turning tricks in Manhattan for 3000 dollars or more a night. That, I believe, is equal to about 2000 quid. In other words, you made as much as a hooker on one customer on one night as you now make in a week.”
She kept her composure. I give her that.
“You are very good at your research. I thought that was well buried.”
“So it was. Unless you look for the story in things. There is always more. Then you find the patterns. People change, but not wholly. Not completely. I was curious why you would quit one misbegotten job only to take another at lower pay? It’s not that your looks deserted you. I really haven’t a clue on that, and I can’t seem to make one up. From Marta Poole to Greta Shields, to Grace Martin. Marta Poole must have been a very interesting young woman.”
“She was poor. Not a crime, but a handicap.”
“Well, Ms Martin. I was born with advantages you never enjoyed. I readily admit. And I was never made to sell my body or my soul, though I have been asked more than once. Researching you in the last day has made me appreciate the advantages I had more than ever before. Far more. And yet, for all of that, I’m still very curious. More than that. Mystified. Why did you spend everything you’d managed to save in New York on a Journalism school in London? Why not piano lessons. Or English literature?”
” I did that too. And the elocution. Don’t forget that. I thought I would be a very good reporter. I had an idea I might be able to find the truth in things . . . And they all seemed like good ideas at the time. ”
“And you did well, to a point. You remade a part of yourself, but not your soul.”
“I don’t believe in a soul.”
She said this last thing having looked away from me for the first time. Her eyes were on her hands. The small recording device there was now turned off.
I said, “Then maybe you’ve answered my question, in your own way.”
Grace Martin gathered her coat and satchel then as if she had reached her stop, but only went to the next car.
Aunt Jane shook her head at me, “At least now I know why you were looking at those disgusting pictures when I came to get you this morning.”
“You didn’t recognize her?”
“She was the woman with red stockings.”
The manager at the hotel in Leeds was happy to see us back again. It was off-season and I suppose he was renting extra rooms to the reporters from out of town. Two were doubled up in the room next to mine, and two more right on the other side from Aunt Jane.
After breakfast, I went directly up to the University. Elise Severn was not listed in the directory, but they have a telephone system with ‘helps.’ I tapped in the name ‘Severn’ and it dialed her directly.
I said, “Hello. It’s William McGuire–”
She hung up. I did it again, and she did that again a second time.
On the third try a computer voice offered to take a message.
I called Ms Evans instead.
I told her a lie. I said I just wanted a chance to sit down and talk to Elise for an hour. Maybe over dinner and a beer. I said that she had the wrong idea about me and I would be going home shortly, but I wanted to clear the air. Ms Evans was very happy to hear from me and said she would do what she could. But first, I must do her a favor in return. She wondered if she could interview me at one of the labs. It would only take a couple of hours.
The lab was a near duplicate of the buildings at MIT. Sterile Twentieth Century Academic with plates of colored plastic scattered here and there for visual amusement and enormously enlarged photographs of people and things that must mean something to someone but which offered no explanation other than the unstated possibility of simply hiding the sterile Twentieth Century Academic architecture beneath.
The first room was too small. I told her I would prefer something larger. Four or five times larger at least. She suggested an unoccupied classroom.
She was not alone. Three graduate students accompanied her. None of these people, two women and a man, seemed happy to have been pulled from their previously assigned chores. Only Ms Evans smiled.
The questions were as boring as the architecture.
“Do you feel lonely?”
“Do you feel anger over the way you have been treated?”
“Have you ever wished you were never born?”
Most of the questions I could easily turn back on the students for comparison.
This, they repeatedly told me, was not helpful.
When they got to the more speculative items like, “Have you wondered yet what your real mother looked like?” I had to answer a little more delicately. Her question suggested genetic memory to me and I was not ready to consider it.
I said, “I have thought she must look something like Elise.”
This got an immediate facial tick from the male student.
Ms Evans asked, “Really? Have you ever dreamed about her?”
“I’m not sure I dreamed it. But I wrote it down that way in a story recently.”
“And your father, what did he look like — not your adoptive father?”
“A darker version of myself.”
By telling this little tale I might have caused another problem for myself. Of course I had always thought my mother looked like . . . Mother.
Ms Evans feigned reluctance. She clearly had a motive. “Well, if you must know, because Elise once told me what she dreamed her mother looked like. It was simply a bigger version of Mrs. Severn. And her father was a bigger and taller Mr. Severn. It seemed simple enough and I never made much note of it, but now I’m having a second thought. People so often see themselves as an extension of what they like. You did not like your parents, I take it?”
“Dr. McGuire was not a good father?”
“He was no father at all. More like a bad uncle.”
“And your mother?”
“She did what she thought best considering the fact that she saw the whole thing as a great mistake on her part.”
The next group of questions I objected to.
“Do you date very often?”
“Have you ever had a longer term sexual relationship?”
“How many short term sexual relationships have you had?”
“I don’t count. Anthropologically speaking, I suppose I’m not doing a good job of spreading my genetic material.”
“Once a month?”
“I think you will have to settle for ‘uncooperative.’ ”
“Mr. McGuire, you agreed to this. You must have known I would ask.”
“Doesn’t your father — or the team that works with your father — don’t they ask these sorts of questions?”
“Are you serious?”
“I am! I refused. Once I saw the pattern to it I realized what they were pretending. It’s not science. I accidently found the report from one graduate student I’d mistakenly befriended when I was sixteen. He’d made it of his doctoral thesis. The presumptions were outrageous. It all made me an even greater admirer of Charles Darwin. At least Darwin tried hard to keep away from such false narratives made whole out of insufficient data. Unfortunately for him, the public wanted something more vivid, like ‘mankind descended from monkeys.’ It made for a better graphic.”
“But don’t you see! Now we have two. Now we do have something more!”
“You have two. Importantly, you have a man and a woman. Any average social observer can tell you the differences between the two, male and female, are great enough for a hermaphrodite alien from Alpha Centauri to presume they are from different species . . . But another thought just struck me. What is the difference between what you do and what the average reporter for the Times or the Telegraph does?”
The rest of the session was more combative and less relatable.
I think because she had her ulterior motives in place, Ms Evans followed through with her side of the commitment.
I met Elise at a faculty lounge. She was wearing a dress. I know this is not exceptional in America, but it is not the fashion in Europe. I was impressed. Very nice.
She had curled her hair. And that was quite cute. Better. Pretty. But she noticed me looking.
“I didn’t do it just for you. My niece had a birthday party last night at my parent’s house.
The place where we met was nearly empty, but all those who were there thought it best to sit close enough to hear a whisper. The fellow at the next table smiled when Elise mentioned the reason for curling her hair. I suggested we leave.
“Do you have a car?”
“Yes. Though you’re at least 10 centimeters taller than me. You’ll have to bend your head a little.”
“Four inches? Maybe. Any ideas?”
“I thought you would have something.”
“I think you already noted that once, didn’t you? I don’t have a plan.”
We made it all the way to the parking lot before she spoke again.
“Everyplace we go somebody will be listening. I would even invite you to my apartment, but there was a strange little man outside in a car this morning. I can imagine the headline on that . . . We could go to my parents. They have some cake left. We could order take-out.”
This sounded good to me.
But her mother was not interested in having take-out brought to her house, though her father was not so disinclined. She made spaghetti.
Her father, a ruddy man, was fully a foot shorter than me. He squinted upward like he was looking into a bright sky.
“What do ya do?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
“I didn’t say ‘how.’ I said, ‘What’ ”
The alternative statements in the press were simple to choose from.
“I was a ‘bouncer’ until recently”
“I kept the wrong people from coming into a nightclub.”
“Hah! I have a friend Eddy does that.”
Mrs. Severn spoke up.
“Eddy did it until someone bounced his head on the road.”
“Yes. He did. He works behind the bar now.”
“What do you do, Mr. Severn?”
“Bob. That’s us. I was a postman. That, until they made us retire. Now I just pester my wife.”
She rolled her yes. “I wish he pestered us more.”
“Mum!” Elise was upset by something her mother had said which I did not grasp.
There was an ‘electric fire’ in a false hearth in the parlor and we all sat around there as if it were the real thing.
Clear ale bottles, filled with multicolored fractions of sea-glass, lined most empty surfaces. Each one had a date at the bottom written on a piece of tape.
“That one is what we collected in 2045. It was a very good year. There had been storms the season before and the beach at Weymouth that summer was filled with it like an open treasure box. I filled a dozen bottles in a week, but I gave them all away to friends. I can only make so much jewelry, you understand.”
She lifted the strand at her neck up high enough to catch the light.
I said, “Very beautiful. A little summer in each piece.”
Mrs. Severn smiled, “Every summer is right there in those bottles. Each and every one since Elise was a baby and she could scoot with the birds, and run just before the water on the pewter sand.”
Mr. Severn had another thought, “Too crowded there. I think our girl was always happiest when we were up at the moors, the times we stayed at Ampleforth and she got to tramp through the heather from dawn till dusk, rain or shine. She has that wildness in her.”
Mrs. Severn lamented, “She hasn’t had that time for either since she went to work at the University.”
Elise appeared unhappy at the choice, “I don’t know which summer was the best.”
I put in, “My favorites were the ones spent at the shore as well, at a little house my father rented in Maine. It only lasted for a few years, but it was nearly perfect. For a couple of weeks I lived at the edge of the ocean. No beach. Just seaweed and rocks, crabs and lobsters.”
“Your parents are divorced?”
“That’s too bad.”
“Not for them. Not a good pairing.” I looked at Mr. and Mrs. Severn to make the point without saying it. “Not so bad for me either, I suppose, because I got Aunt Jane to myself.”
Mrs. Severn’s voice rose. “Ah, Jane! She was a delight!”
Aunt Jane’s visit was then recalled happily. I looked to Elise with the thought of her description of my ‘insidious’ Aunt Jane, and she appeared to know what I was thinking without a word. She bowed her head in apology.
When conversation slacked a moment, mostly from me trying to avoid the wrong questions, Mrs. Severn announced “Don’t mind us. You kids just talk as long as you like.”
Except that Mrs. Severn had to know the meaning of several words that were uncommon to her along the way and offered more tea as soon as the cups were down. And Mr. Severn corrected his daughter’s recollections several times.
“You were the fastest. Not ‘One of the fastest.’ Until University. Body weight was the matter then. But before that, you couldn’t be beat.”
And again, “Not when I was around, you didn’t.” He turned to me. “She’s not much of a whinge. Unless she took that all to her Mum.”
Mrs. Severn joined, “No. Not an unhappy child. Not at all if you were at the beach, or up with us at Ampleforth and hiking on the moors. You know they had us up to the University a couple of times to ask us questions about such things. They didn’t seem to like our answers. They thought we were hiding something from them.”
“They did that to me today.”
“You know then.”
“A little. ‘Bosh,’ as Aunt Jane says. They are no closer to making a science out of psychology today than they were a hundred years ago.”
Mrs. Severn wanted to know, “And what about Miss Jane? Is she a Mary Poppins? She didn’t strike me that way?”
Seeing the confusion on my face, Elise explained, “Does she stick her nose into everything?”
I said, “I wouldn’t say a Mary Poppins then. She worries about me. But she’s . . . Aunt Jane. From what I can tell, she’s what an aunt is supposed to be. I’ve only known the one.”
Mrs. Severn immediately said, “Oh, thank God, not like my sister Matilda. Jesus, no. The life of the party, but she can’t even remember when her own child’s birthday is. She went off someplace–”
“Not the first time.”
After dinner Mrs. Severn said, “Would you like more tea with your cake.”
Mr. Severn said, “Oh, Lord. Not more tea. Can I have my ale now?”
Mrs. Severn scolded, “You can’t have ale with your cake.”
“I’ll skip the cake.”
“But what about our guest?”
I took the chance.
“I think I’d like the ale better myself.”
The cake, beneath a clear plastic bubble cover at the sideboard, was forgotten and we all drank ale.
Sometime close to midnight I suggested I should head home.
“I have an early day tomorrow.”
“Are you leaving, then?”
“I don’t know. I’m not good with plans it seems.”
In a high voice, Mrs. Severn said, “Let the wind take you where it must.”
Mr. Severn objected at her. “You’ve never been on a boat in your life. You read that in a book!”
This comment was not well received.
“You ought to read more yourself!”
Elise was quiet once we were in the car and there were still a bucket-load of questions I had held back while with her parents. Now I didn’t want to address any of them and spoil the moment. But one plagued me. Into the silence I asked, “What about the aging experiments? How long do they think we will live?”
It was rather inelegantly put.
She practically hit a parked car in passing.
“What? No! There’s no idea! They threw that all out years ago. Didn’t your people tell you? They can’t find any genetic difference for that.”
“But wasn’t that part of the reason Bayerpharm supported the original project?”
She sighed, unhappy now to be talking shop. “I think, yes. But they couldn’t find the markers with me. They must have been caused by some individual genetic stress in previous samples.”
“What about Ms Evans?”
“What about her?”
“She looks like she might be dipping into the magic bottle.”
That got a smile.
“She does it all. Whatever it is. Trouble with that, she can’t tell what works and what doesn’t. She worries over getting old and she not even living the life she has now.”
I was happier at Elise’s comment at that moment than at the new knowledge.
“Aren’t you worried over the life you live now?”
She was unprepared for this. “Not worried, exactly. But not happy . . . I work with a lot with mice, you know, testing for harmful chemicals in new products and that. It’s useful work, but some days I feel just like one of the mice. Because I know they’re watching me all the time, looking for one thing or another. But I wasn’t forced to take the job there. I worked for a time at Nat-Agro trying to increase the size of chicken eggs after I graduated.” She caught the look on my face as she drove, “Really. I did! Until I was seeing eggs in my nightmares. But the university pays more. And I get a week more vacation every year.”
“I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want anything to do with them.”
“You think what they did is wrong?”
“I’m not sure. I’m here. I can live my life the way I want. They paid for my college education to keep me here. But I’m not in a cage. I’m free.” She must have seen the change on my face. “What?”
“You are not free. But I suppose the delusion is not worse than it is for most people.”
Her grimace at my answer was indignant.
“And you are not free to jump into the air and fly like a bird. None of us are really free.”
I tried to back off.
“I do wish I could fly. I’ve always wanted to fly. I often find myself bounding into flight in my dreams. Floating above it all. But that wasn’t the sort of freedom I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“We were getting along so well. The evening has been so good. Really good. I like your parents. I don’t want to spoil it.”
“What? It’s just a simple question.”
How was I going to avoid the collision?
“Have you ever smoked a cigarette? ”
“A cigarette. Why would I smoke a cigarette? They’re bad for you.”
“Probably. But have you ever wanted to even try?”
“Well, if you had, you’d discover you had to buy them from some odd character standing by an old car under a bridge somewhere. It’s against the law. In America too.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“You think that’s okay, that someone else has decided what’s good for you?”
She hesitated, already ahead of my line of inquiry. “I’m not sure.”
“How do you learn to take care of yourself, then? Do the mice in your lab know where to go to get their kibble?”
“What would happen if the kibble wasn’t there?”
“They would die! But it’s a lab. Not the wild.”
“I guess that’s as much as I have to say on the matter.”
She stiffened her back. “I’m sorry I asked.”
She was quieter than before. In the dark, I couldn’t tell if she was angry.
I tried again, “What would you do if you hadn’t gotten a degree in biochemistry?”
“Why? Is this part of your lecture?”
“It wasn’t a lecture. I was trying to answer your question. Now I’ve asked one.”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do. You don’t have to tell me, but you’ve thought about it a thousand times.”
“How do you know?”
“I asked the question first.”
“Really?” She paused and tipped her head from side to side. “If I had the choice, I would like to work on a farm. I’d like to be a farmer.”
I gave that a full nod. “Truth is, I knew that. Your father mentioned it when you were off getting the ale.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Because I’m still giving you an answer to your other question. I wanted to ask why you decided not to be a farmer?”
“You can’t just do that. There aren’t a lot of jobs. You have to get permits and they’re only so many issued. You can’t just go out and start growing carrots whenever you want.”
“No. I know that. Because you’re not free to, even if you wanted. You can’t fly and you can’t smoke and you can’t grow carrots.”
“Are you any better? A bouncer?”
“I write stories.”
“You and your Aunt Jane.”
“At least we can do that.”
The strange little fellow was asleep in his car outside of Elise’s apartment. Her designated space was around the corner. After driving by once to check, we came around and parked with our lights off. The car was feeling too close, so I got out and said goodbye to her at the corner.
She said, “It’s foolish not letting us drive you to the hotel.”
“I need the walk.”
“So you won’t leave tomorrow?”
“Not yet. Not until you tell me to.”
“Can we have lunch?”
“A quiet lunch with the faculty?”
“How about the bar where you ‘smashed Ned Feathers in the face? The food is tasty.”
“The owner won’t want to see me again.”
“He filled the place the next day. You made him a pot full.”
Because I suddenly felt that time was running short, I kissed her then. More like a schoolboy taking his first peck, I’m afraid. But she kissed back.
And with that I said good night.
The next day was the worst day of my life. Or nearly so.
“The lover’s kiss” was the headline below the picture in the Telegraph. Very tasteful, actually. The little fellow in the car was not asleep.
But that was not the bad thing I learned first when I was awakened by my father’s voice at 6:30 on the Hotel phone. Nor the realization that he was downstairs.
Downstairs, I found him waiting for me at the elevator doors. He turned me around on the spot and led me back in. We were in the closed elevator when he said it, holding the paper up to my face.
“You can’t be kissing her like that. She’s your sister!”
I don’t know if he had spoken so loudly it was overheard, or if the information had simply traveled across the Atlantic by other means. It seemed to be known by everyone at the same instant. Later, it was on all the news reports, along with that picture of the kiss.
I managed to say, “You can’t know that.”
“Certainly I can. Who headed this project at Leeds? Moira Evans? The former Ms Moira Longoria. We used to call her ‘Loingoria,’ I should add. She was MY assistant the year before you were born. She knew how I did it! She was there for the first try — the one that failed. I had to let someone go after that, just to show good faith with the sponsors. Someone had to take the fall. And your mother was already suspicious.” His face twisted with his anger. “I’m going to sue them for every penny they have in their coffers. That process was patented!”
“You patented a human life?”
“You know that! I told you that!”
“No, you didn’t.”
He shrugged that off. “Well, I meant to. It’s a fact. In a manner of speaking, I own you. I just thought because of your temperament that maybe I shouldn’t tell you at the wrong moment.”
“Bosh.” In fact I said ‘Bosh.’ I was suddenly very tired. I had not really slept all night. I was positive I was in love for the first time in my life, and now I had been told I was in love with my own sister.
The two reporters from the room next to mine had reached the elevator doors when we got to my floor. They were still tucking their shirts in, having realized I had left without them.
I took Father into my room, and sat down.
“How do you know for sure?”
“It takes years! She just didn’t fly back here and duplicate all that in a few months! She’d worked with the Dutch after she worked with me. Probably slept with one of the heads of that program too. Right? How did she convince them to give up any of what they had? But they were . . . Well, Billy, you see, the Dutch team was working with the exact same material I was. Some kid that fell down a crevice in a glacier in the Caucasus about 40,000 years ago. They got to the Georgians first after the news reports hit. So I had to do some work behind the scenes, so to speak. I found a Russian geneticist who’d worked on the original excavation. He had put a little aside for himself, you understand. The body the Dutch got out just happened to be missing a few parts. So, whether Ms Evans stole it from me or got it from them, it’s the same genetic stuff. The same DNA. You are twins, made from the same father.”
“He was too young to be a father.”
“Not a strong argument.”
I sat in the chair at the desk and looked out through the drizzle in Leeds and felt pretty bad. I couldn’t even get up when Aunt Jane knocked.
“What are you doing here?” were her first words to Father.
His kind reply, “Trying to save Billy from committing incest.”
Aunt Jane had read enough to know about the process now. She did not ask for an explanation. She simply came over and put her hand on my head and pulled me to her breast.
Father had left for the University well before I could gather myself. There was lead in my legs and my butt. I don’t know how long I sat in the chair.
I should have called Elise. I couldn’t. I was totally without words. An unusual moment in my life.
The first I learned of the incident later that morning at the University was when I got into a cab in front of the hotel with Aunt Jane.
The driver turned to me. “Was that your father they took to the hospital?”
“I can only hope so. What are you talking about?”
“Professor McGuire, was his name. I know that. The big blonde — I ‘m sorry, the young woman at the University that I read you went to see before — I think she assaulted him — I mean battered him. Or whatever the American word is. She bashed him up pretty badly.”
There was a live television feed going on from the main gate of the campus when we got there so the helpful cab driver took us to a side entrance.
I found Elise in Ms Evans’ office. Her voice was as low as I’ve ever heard on a woman.
“We are both monsters.”
She stood back from me when I came in.
“It’s not true.”
“We are the artificial product of a test tube. ‘Manufactured goods,’ as my Da says about cheap things.”
Ms Evans actually looked remorseful. “I didn’t know. How could I? I knew he’d bought his material from the Russians. That’s all. I should have guessed. Knowing him, I should have guessed.”
I tried to take Elise’s hand. She pulled it away.
“But I don’t feel like your brother,” was all I could think to say
She spoke at the window. “How would you know? You never had a sister.”
There was a silence. Maybe a second, Maybe a minute. I said, “What do we do now?”
Ms Evan started to offer an answer.
Elise said, “Shut up. You’ve caused enough.” She turned to face me. “You should go home and live your life now, and I will stay here and live mine. It’s what people always do when things don’t work out the way they should . . . What they should do . . .”
I thought of English stiff upper lips for just a passing second before I saw Elise’s lip begin to quiver.
While I could, I wanted to say one more thing to Elise. I wanted to say it out loud at least once in my life. I wished Mss Evans wasn’t there. She’d probably just put it in her study report.
“I love you.”
Elise began to cry. Weep, actually. I had not seen her cry, and I knew from Ms Evans response that it had seldom happened before.
Ms Evans actually said, “You’re crying!”
Elise said, “Shut up,” again. And then, to me, “Please go. This is not the time to sort things out. Go home. Please. And someday, if you can, write me the letter you should have written me before you ever came . . . Like these last few days never happened . . . I’d like to have that.”
She left me standing there, feeling numb.
I did not visit my father in the hospital. But I was told he was not filing charges. The reason for this was obscure to me at first. Then I realized from a remark Ms Evans had made in trying to excuse herself of responsibility that they had spoken at length before Elise ever came on the scene. Elise pummeled Father for his bad behavior without a word. But something Ms Evans had told him must have been enough to hurt him or his career, or his reputation. Later, on the phone, Ms Evans would not say what that was. Why would she if it gave her such an advantage over him? He was not even going to file his lawsuit against Leeds.
And Elise had disappeared.
I imagined her roaming the heather alone and let that be.
When I next saw the light blue raincoat, my first reaction was one of admiration for her persistence.
We were in South Hampton. Jane had booked passage on a Cunard cruise ship from there to Miami, Florida, and we had managed to get from Leeds to South Hampton without a hitch. Without being seen, or so I thought. I was getting good at it — that and funny walks. From Miami I would take the train north to Boston — or wherever. I had not yet decided. Aunt Jane had never been on a passenger ship before and was quite excited as she looked over the crowd for the sort of little details she loved.
Aunt Jane was the first to see the blue raincoat. “I don’t believe this.”
“It’s great isn’t it?”
“You don’t see her yet. She’s over there.”
“That woman, Grace. The reporter-prostitute.”
“That’s a tautology, or a redundancy, or some such. Where?”
“Coming right toward us at two o’clock.”
There was a post blocking my line of sight that way and I suspect Grace had chosen her approach carefully, assuming I’d be the one to spot her first over all the heads.
I said, “Look away. Don’t let her know you saw her.”
I was shaking up a bottle of soda I had bagged for the trip.
Aunt Jane saw it and said, “Stop! Just because I’m here, you’re starting to act like a school boy.”
Reluctantly I did and we both stared at our pursuer as she made her way through the crowd, fully around the post and stopped directly in front of us.
“Hello. I see how happy you are to see me. But I tracked you down. Give me that.”
“And I did it without a press badge. I am no longer a news reporter, as you can also see. Not for now.” I will admit, from the way she looked, my first thought was that she might have returned to her previous profession. Then she answered that thought just as if I’d said it. “And not that either . . . I’m going back to school. I thought I’d study a little history. There’s a school in Michigan I’ve read about before. Maybe I can still be the reporter I wanted to be, someday. If they’ll let me. But I thought I’d try some of your dream for now. I thought I would write a book. A few books maybe. I have several stories I’d like to tell. I have a unique perspective, don’t you think?”
No argument with that. Just an observation.
“Yeah. You do. But perspective isn’t everything. There is a lot of bad art out there that has all the windows the right size.”
Grace nodded, “Right. You are right, just as you were before. It’s really a matter of the story as much as the fact, isn’t it.”
“I think so . . . Did you track us down to tell me that?”
“No . . . I read the Telegraph piece that they ran instead of the one I never filed. It was bad. I admit it. Then I went back and read all the stories from the past two months. Then I read your father’s curriculum vitae. And Moira Longoria’s . . . I did my research.” She nodded, as if affirming her words. She would deliver her lede now in her own sweet time. “You should always do your research, you know . . . And I discovered that Dr. McGuire was in Russia in 2018. For a conference, of course. That’s how they get away with everything, all expenses paid. No taxes. I found out that he met there with Oscar Samuels, a Ukrainian geneticist. It was noted in the Russian press because Dr. Samuels was a relatively obscure man and your father was already one of the bright lights of the field. Samuels has died since. But Dr. Samuels was a man who often stooped to pick up a penny. He understood your father’s ambition. And Samuels gave him what he wanted . . . But it was not from the Caucasian boy. All that remained of the find was in fact bought by the University of Amsterdam, a portion of which ended up in Leeds. What Samuels sold your father was from a previous Russian find at Belukha Mountain . . . You should read his paper on it. It was published in a memoriam volume and it’s available on the Russian internet. I wonder if fifty people ever read it. But I had a bright fellow who knows his languages at the Telegraph scan it for anything I might want. And there is an interesting thing Dr. Samuels says.” She unfolded a yellow scrap in her hand and took a breath. Suddenly, I could hear nothing of the hubbub that surrounded us. “It would appear these people did not simply have accidents, as we supposed. These places are far from the probable beaten paths. Desolate of anything but a clear passage to eternity. With this fellow’s body there were flowers, still keeping their reds and yellows, which must have been carried to the site from far below. Just as there were with the boy in the Caucuses. It would appear that these Neanderthal, so primitive, knew these bodies would be preserved for the ages in the ice, and had wished that it would be so.”
I was not breathing. Aunt Jane held fast to my arm for support.
Grace added, “It’s amazing really. As if they were looking into the future and hoping that one day this loved one would live again. That’s the rest of the story, isn’t it? — As your old American journalist used to say. But Russia, Mongolia and China were nearly at war that year. He could not publish his findings then and he had no other use for the portion of this ancient man he had saved. It was just an expensive relic for an old professor from a small academic center. And then your father appeared. Your crazy father with American university money to burn and looking for a part of the Georgian find. Dr. Samuels had no private line on that. But he did know what was in his lab. So he told a small lie. And at least Professor Samuels did not die a poor Russian academic.”
I thanked Grace — I actually kissed her and the picture of that was in the paper at Leeds the next day. I had a porter find my luggage. Aunt Jane wanted to continue with her own voyage. She saw no place for herself on the immediate road ahead for me.
I handed my ticket to Grace.
“Have you ever wanted to go someplace else in America? Miami is nice in the winter, they say. And you can even get to Michigan from there by train.”
“Can you do that?”
“If you have your passport. Yes. I’m told a porter can fix anything. Let me ask. Here . . . Hold these snacks. But don’t open that bottle of soda.”
I found Elise at home with her parents. But I wrote her a letter first to say I was coming and had it hand-delivered by a newsboy I saw on the street who was making his rounds with paper copies of the afternoon edition of the Leeds Mercury. The one with the picture of me kissing Grace.
I won’t tell you all that the note said. Most of it you can now guess.
But it began, ‘I am William McGuire . . .’